Logo: University of Southern California

Robots for the Win

USC Viterbi Hosts Los Angeles Regional Botball Tournament
by: Katie McKissick
April 28, 2014 —
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 The game board at the 2014 Botball Los Angeles Regional Tournament. Photo by Michelle Park.

On April 26, 2014, USC Viterbi and the Kiss Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR) hosted the 2014 Botball Los Angeles Regional Tournament. For this NSF-sponsored event, teams of middle school and high school students design, build and program robots to complete a set of challenges on a complex game board.

Teams build their robots out of materials such as Legos, metal and electronic hardware, complete with robotic arms and claws that they use to manipulate objects like balls and cubes. But these robots are not being controlled by the students: they are programmed to make decisions and complete tasks on their own.

“The big thing that distinguishes Botball from a lot of the other robot competitions out there is that they focus more on writing code--developing software--for complete autonomy on the robots,” explained Ross Mead, Botball organizer and USC Viterbi computer science Ph.D. candidate. “There’s no remote control: the robots are completely autonomous, which is something no other robot competition can completely claim at this level of education.”

This year’s theme is a socially assistive one. Botball’s mascot, Botguy, has returned from his Mars mission—the theme of last year’s competition—and must now go through physical therapy to readjust to Earth’s environment. To do this, the robots assist Botguy to go through his physical therapy exercises: sorting “physical therapy cubes” based on color, moving hangers to various racks, and going to an exercise bench. Each completed task earns the team points; the most complicated exercises are worth more points or may even double points earned in an area.

This year 27 teams competed, and for the second year in a row, South Pasadena High School was the regional champion, a team led by Helena Roberts-Matarić, daughter of USC Professors Maja Matarić and Rich Roberts.

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Ross Mead (left) interviews Helena Roberts-Matarić (middle) during the 2014 Botball Los Angeles Regional Tournament. Photo by Michelle Park.

Mead spearheaded this year’s socially assistive theme—the first ever in Botball history. As a Botball instructor, Mead teaches workshops, mentors teams and participates in the Global Conference of Educational Robotics, where along with other Botball mentors, they decide the theme of the game. “We start off with a story, a narrative, to motivate what they’re doing,” said Mead.

It’s fitting for USC Viterbi to host a robotics competition with a socially assistive theme, as USC Viterbi is one of the global leaders in socially assistive robotics. Professors like Maja Matarić, Mead’s Ph.D. mentor, program robots to help people in their everyday lives, especially those with special needs.

See more pictures of the event.

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“These are all scenarios you would actually see in human physical therapy," Mead said. "There are gross motor task exercises, fine motor task exercises and there’s a workout bench. There are 'activities of daily living,' such as lifting hangers and putting them on different racks. These are classic things we do in physical therapy for people who have had strokes, or the elderly.”

Mead is a longtime Botball veteran: he competed in the Indiana league as a high school student before starting a Botball team in his hometown of St. Louis, and he was the world champion in 2006 and 2007. When he moved to Los Angeles to attend USC Viterbi for graduate school, he quickly started the Los Angeles Botball region and has continued mentoring students ever since. Ross has now been involved with Botball for 14 years.

“I would credit this program as one of the main reasons I got into robotics,” said Mead.

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The scene at the 2014 Botball Los Angeles Regional Tournament. Photo by Michelle Park.

USC Viterbi will also host the Global Conference of Educational Robotics July 30-August 3.