We’re pretty passionate about encouraging the next generation of software engineers here at Snowflake and recently Harry Cutts, this years Code-Off winner and our summer intern, took a week out from working on GO Publisher to work with some enthusiastic sixth-form students and some Robots in a week long summer school (which looks very much like Robot Wars)…..
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is as follows…
You must build a robot to be placed in an 8 metre square arena with three other competitors, four pedestals, and twenty cubes plastered with computer-recognisable markers. Your robot has 3 minutes to collect as many cardboard cubes as possible, and return them to its zone. Bonus points for placing them on your pedestal. No remote controls.
You’ll work in a team of five people who you’ve likely never met. Oh, and you’ve got four days. What do you say?
I took a week out of my internship here at Snowflake this month, to give exactly that challenge to ten teams of sixth-form or late secondary students in a summer school run by Student Robotics, the Smallpeice Trust, and the University of Southampton.
Student Robotics Summer School
Student Robotics is a student-led organisation which I’m a member of. We have branches in Southampton and Bristol, and a growing number of volunteers in other parts of the UK and Europe. We’re used to running a similar competition over the course of an academic year, so compressing it down into five days, including workshops, robot building and the competition itself, was challenging.
For the students, the first day consisted of welcome talks, the setting of the challenge, and a lot of brainstorming by the newly-formed teams. By the end of the first afternoon the teams had a remarkable number of ideas and sketches, and cardboard prototypes could be found all around the lab.
The second day was mostly taken up by workshops on programming and electronics. I’ll admit to being a little nervous as the first 25 students arrived to follow a workshop I’d designed, using software I’d been writing for the past couple of months! However, apart from a couple of hiccoughs first thing in the morning, everyone seemed to get on remarkably well, considering how many of them had never even written a computer program before. Afterwards came the electronics workshop, where they built parts of a tune-generating circuit.
Robots Take Shape
With Wednesday came “Academic talks”, by which I mean tours of the University’s High Voltage Lab and Clean Rooms, as well as more time for the teams to work on their all-important robots. Up to this point I had mostly been occupied elsewhere, in the construction of the game arena, but as the robot work extended into the evening I got an opportunity to see how the teams were getting on. I was pretty astonished. Robots of many shapes and sizes were taking shape where before there had only been wood, electronics, duct tape (I’m assured it wasn’t structural) and wild ideas. Some used grabbers, others sweeping arms, and still others did away with moving parts and were designed to simply “catch” tokens in an empty space in between their wheels.
After some more work and academic talks on Thursday morning, it was time for the teams to move down to the arena where the competition would take place. With it there in front of them, just asking to be tested, the teams set to work in earnest on the programs that would drive their robots. As in all Student Robotics competitions, the robots had to be totally autonomous, with no human intervention after the three minutes began. This, I think, was the hardest part of the challenge, and many teams struggled. As we left the arena for the course formal dinner, I got the feeling that many teams didn’t feel quite ready.
Finally, it was Friday — competition time. After a last hour of manic hacking and assembly, the first matches began. In contrast to last year, the vast majority of robots moved in their first matches! None would have looked out of place at the final competition of our main event, where the teams have over six months of work time fitted around their studies.
The first matches ranked the teams into two leagues, gold and silver, and they then competed for the top prize in their league. There were fierce matches in both leagues, and passions ran high, especially when robots became disoriented and gave points to other teams after (which happened quite often!)
A robot named Gary quickly distinguished itself in the gold league, with its ability to herd large numbers of cubes around the arena. The biggest problem which the team experienced was that Gary didn’t distinguish between its own zone and those of its competitors, leading to much accidental generousity to begin with. The team eventually fixed the problem, and Gary became an efficient cube-herding machine, attracting much bad karma from the other teams. This came to a head in the final, where the robot opposite Gary in the arena collided with it in the first ten seconds, immobilising both for the rest of the match. It looked like it was all up until well into the last minute, when a third robot in the match returned some of Gary’s previous generousity by placing eight cubes into Gary’s zone. A winner was found!
Gary’s team each won a Raspberry Pi, and there were a number of runner-up prizes. There was no rest for us, though. Scaffolding needed taking down, kit moving back to our storage room, and a hundred other things needed doing. Finally, we were finished, the pub was given patronage, and a lot of sleep was had by all.
Overall, I was really encouraged by the whole experience. With the current shortage of people studying engineering and STEM subjects, we really need to encourage more young people into the field, and I’m sure that a good number of the students we mentored that week will go on to become the engineers of the future.