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NatureInterface > No.03 > P052-053 [Japanese]

Autonomous Robots with Lots of Unique Ideas -- Ken Sasaki







Autonomous Robots with Lots of Unique Ideas

Robot Contest in May Festival at the Department of Systems Innovation, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo

Robot Contest in May Festival at the Department of Systems Innovation, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo

Every year at the University of Tokyo's May Festival, a robot contest is held jointly by the Program for Biological & Information Systems and the Program for Social Innovation, both of which belong to the Department of System Innovation, School of Engineering. The contest was started 12 years ago by the then-Department of Precision Engineering (one of the founding departments of the Department of System Innovation).

Many robot contests are held in universities and technical colleges all over Japan. Remote controllers can be used in such competitions, but not at the annual May Festival. Neither are the contestants allowed to touch their robots after switching them on. These two rules mean that the robots at the University of Tokyo competition are "autonomous."

As machines around us have greatly improved, we often take it for granted that machines move automatically. In fact, however, it is not as easy as we think to fulfill given assignments with hand-made robots. When we use remote controllers, highly adept robot performance can be realized by human intervention even if the mechanisms of the robots are simple. This is because of the human being's great abilities to decide and to adapt. In robotics research, it is really difficult to make autonomous robots.

In 1990 when the first robot contest was held, the assignment was "vertical high jumping". Most of the methods used there involved first compressing springs or pulling rubber by the rotation of a motor, which began when the robot was switched on; after that, all the accumulated energy would be released at once, providing the burst of force needed to make the robot jump straight up. Thus, because the entire robot would have to be lifted into the air, it was very important to make the robot as light as possible.

There were several assignments after the robot contests were held: golf-ball throwing, a horizontal bar exercise, climbing over a wall and so on. Every assignment required autonomous robots without human operation.

The assignment this year was to cross over a crevasse (30cm wide). The initial size of the robots had to be less than 30cm at the longest part, and so some extension mechanism was needed. The methods to cross over the crevasse were various: by extending the whole robot body, by extending a ladder, by having a motorcar climb and jump off a ramp, by stretching out folded plates, by shooting adhesive strips across the gap and winching up the robot, by controlling with a microcomputer, and so on.

I thought that some competitors would use a method that would let the robot body glide using a high-jump mechanism, as seen in the first robot contest, but I didn't find any examples of this. Since all of these independent robots showed a great deal of originality, the contestants probably did not want to repeat one of last year's ideas.

In the classroom in which the competition was held, there were many spectators, even standees. That showed the popularity of this contest. I am really looking forward to next year's competition.

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