Logo: University of Southern California

Robots Galore

Robots reign at the 2014 Global Conference on Educational Robotics held at USC
By: Katie McKissick
August 07, 2014 —
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 At the Global Conference on Educational Robotics inside the Galen Center. USC Photo/ Gus Ruelas

A few months after the Greater Los Angeles Regional Botball Tournament, Botguy is back at USC. The 2014 Global Conference on Educational Robotics, hosted by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR), took place at the University of Southern California Galen Center from July 30 through Aug. 3, 2014. Roboticists of all ages gathered for informational sessions, student talks and several robot competitions, including the International Botball Robotics Tournament, the International Elementary Botball Challenge, the KIPR Autonomous Aerial Robot (Drone) Tournament, and the KIPR Open Robotics Tournament. Over 70 teams from five countries competed in this year’s competitions. 

This annual conference gives robotics students, educators, enthusiasts and professionals an opportunity to connect, share ideas and discuss the latest advances in robot technology. It also provides a forum for teams to pit their robots against one another in head-to-head competitions. This year’s competitions focus on assisting in physical rehabilitation: robots are tasked with helping the Botball mascot, Botguy, perform rehabilitation exercises, such as putting hangers on a bar, demonstrating one of the many practical applications of robots in the future. 

For Steve Goodgame, executive director of KIPR, the social aspects of the conference are just as important as the technical skills. “My favorite part is watching the kids during the social interaction. They’re here with like-minded peers, and I know they’re creating lasting friendships.”

And Ross Mead, Botball organizer and USC Viterbi computer science Ph.D. student, is inspired by this next generation of scientists and engineers. From kindergarteners all the way to high school seniors, these students are building and programming robots—and not with visual programming shortcuts or simplified programming platforms, but with the real C language used by researchers and professionals.

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“A lot of times people say that kids will not be able to understand real programming languages,” said Mead, “and it’s not true, and we’re showing that.”

And that is what sets Botball apart from so other robotics competitions: it’s student-driven and they think through every aspect of their robot. “Win or lose, they produced something,” said Mead. "They’re running it. Everything you see here is their own design, building and programming efforts. It's 100 percent by the students. It's 100 percent autonomous robots. And it's 100 percent real code. No other educational program can say that."

Each robot placed on the competition table was unique, with different armatures to accomplish the tasks of picking up the plushy Botguy and putting hangers on various bars. Many were built atop an iRobot Create Programmable Robot--similar to a Roomba. Mead explained that iRobot is a Botball sponsor and provided the robot as an option for the students to use as a mobile platform.

Competitors place their robots on the starting platform of the game board and position gooseneck lamps so that they will illuminate a light-sensitive sensor on their robot. Since these are entirely autonomous robots (as in, not remote-controlled), this is how the robots are informed that the competition has begun. The judges initiate an automated count down procedure to turn on the lights, and the robots come alive, move around the game board, gather orange pompoms, position hangers and pick up Botguy.

Once everything is in motion, teams cheer on their robots, hoping that the code running each one will equip it to make the right decisions and complete all the tasks on the board. And the excitement is contagious.

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Ross Mead and Chloe Grubb at the 2014 Global Conference on Educational Robotics.

For high school student Chloe Grubb, the highlight of Botball is the friendly community. “You’ll see a lot of teams helping other teams, spending time with other teams, and trying to get them to do well, because everyone here wants to see everyone succeed.” Grubb attends the School of Dreams Academy in Los Lunas, New Mexico and is spending the summer at USC doing research with Mead on human-robot interaction: specifically, programming interactive robots to recognize and generate socially appropriate eye gaze behavior, and implementing the behavior for conversations between humans and robots.

For the full list of tournament results, visit the KIPR website.

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Sponsors for the event include the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the National Science Foundation, USC Civic Engagement, the USC Viterbi Computer Science Department and the USC Viterbi STEM Consortium.