The Most Amazing Thing at the Robot Competition Was the People

When my husband told me about the Autonomous Vehicle Competition that was being held in Boulder, I loved the idea of going. He described it as robots running an obstacle course. The teams that designed and built the land and air vehicles could tell their robots what to do via programming, but when it came time to perform, they had to push the start button and then hope their vehicle could find its way on its own.

AVC is dangerous? Cool!
AVC is dangerous? Cool!

I imagined eight-legged robots that walked like spiders climbing over obstacles and mini-airplanes swooping through the air. I expected the place would be packed with stereotypical geeks: lanky, awkward teenage boys with no social skills. I would see exciting, mind-blowing, geeky things.

What I actually saw were wheeled vehicles zipping around the race course and running into hay bales. Quadcopters lifted into the air and floated out over the reservoir like alien spacecraft. The geeks were there but they ran in age from teens to seniors. Some of them were even major talkers. I wish I could say there were lots of girl geeks, but the women were seriously outnumbered. I was happy to see the few that were there.

Gilbert: My favorite flying entry. Note the creative homemade goodness.
Gilbert: My favorite flying entry. Note the creative homemade goodness.

Most of my time was spent at the airfield, because my husband was making sound level measurements and recordings of the autonomous aircraft for work, and I was helping him keep an eye on all the equipment. But I did make it over to the land course for a few runs and got a sense of the range of entries, from beginner to expert.

The course was a simple fenced oblong in a parking lot, roughly 150 to 200 feet on a side. Optional obstacles, which earned successful robots extra points, included barrels to weave through, a ramp to jump, and a hoop to go through. For most heats, three to five robots started at the same time but they were racing the clock, not one another.

A team of high school students had built a metal car the size of a laundry basket. I watched their second run. Their goal was to make the first turn in the course, which was only a small fraction of the total distance. Apparently, they had failed to make that turn during their first run and were determined to get farther this time. (Every robot gets to make three runs, and their makers use the time between heats in their pit, fixing, programming, and tweaking them endlessly.)

The students’ car was following a white line painted on the ground and it was slow. The other vehicles in the heat had crashed or made it over the finish line long before this behemoth got to the first turn. Apparently, its electronic brain was busy figuring out where the line was and where it was supposed to go next. The thing crept along, stopping often.

The crowd cheered it on. The closer it got to making the turn, the more the crowd yelled and clapped. The robot’s jerky forward movement made it seem like it was responding to the sound. When it did officially make the turn, the audience applauded as if the robot had covered the entire course and defeated every obstacle.

This “competition” was not what I had expected. The robots were competing against the course, not each other. Every entry had loud support from the audience. They cheered when the robots succeeded, sighed for a near miss, and gasped in dismay when one crashed.

I saw many amazing geeky things: mini-copters that zipped through the air, stopped on a dime, and dropped a tennis ball on a target; a retro-fitted Jeep that drove itself; an air-canon that launched a gallon jug of water in order to slingshot a fixed-wing plane into the sky. (The air-canon was successful two out of three tries.)

Hexcode: the winner in the Rotating Wing class. The body was made with a 3-D printer.  Geeky and cool!
Hexcode: the winner in the Rotating Wing class. The body was made with a 3-D printer. Geeky and cool!

There were many failures. Planes and copters crashed. One caught on fire. A couple wound up in the lake. Cars failed to leave the starting line or got lost out on the course. Vehicles went the wrong direction at the wrong time. Teams had to drop out when their robot that had managed one or two runs failed catastrophically later on.

What amazed me most was the hope and the courage of the team members. Their outrageous hope that a bundle of wires, metal, plastic, chips, and code could navigate without any help, and their willingness to let any failure they might experience be completely, utterly, embarrassingly public.

Seeing the failures made the successes that much more spectacular, but the failures in themselves were important. They reminded me that just because it doesn’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. The copters that flew flawlessly and the cars that whizzed around the course as though they were being driven by remote control were built by the people who had tried, failed, and tried again. They kept trying until they finally got it right.

So, it wasn’t exactly what I expected.

It was much much better.

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