Robots fight for honor

High prize money, on the other hand, is less important for the attractiveness of a robotics competition

The winner takes it all? No way. In the EuRoC competition, the winner gets nothing, but perhaps a cup and a certificate. The winning team of the European Robotics Challenge can expect nothing more. The joy of standing on the top step has to be enough in this new robotics competition, which will run until December 2017.

Nevertheless, the EuRoC participants do not have to go home empty-handed. A total of 7 million euros has been earmarked for the competition, not as a prize at the end, but as a challenge during the competition, which is divided into three disciplines and takes place over several stages. The tasks are based on application scenarios from industrial robotics: There is the largely open Production Challenge, the Logistics Challenge, in which manipulation tasks must also be performed with a lightweight robot arm, and the Services Challenge. The latter involves inspecting facilities with the help of flying platforms.

Each task must first be solved in a simulation. Out of 102 teams that participated in this first round, 5 teams qualified per discipline. They each received up to 375 euros for the next round, which involves laboratory solutions.000 euros. 30 of the eliminated teams each received 5.000 euros for having helped to define the test criteria more precisely through their participation. Two best teams per discipline will emerge from the current laboratory round, each of which will receive another 210.000 euros to prepare for testing their systems under realistic conditions in the third phase of the competition. From these remaining six teams, the winner will be chosen at the end of 2017 "Winners of all classes" will be determined by a jury decision.

With this staggered distribution of funds EuRoC follows the experience of robot competitions organized by the US military research agency Darpa in the past ten years. Here, the first Grand Challenges for autonomous vehicles in 2004 and 2005 initially only offered millions in prize money for the winning teams. The 2007 Urban Challenge and the Robotics Challenge for humanoid robots that ended this year, on the other hand, offered additional funding for selected teams that had already been disbursed before the final rounds.

Robots fight for honor

Image: MBZIRC

Drone team must track moving objects

While EuRoC has dispensed with the prize money altogether, the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC), organized by Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, has opted for mixed funding along the lines of the Darpa model. Out of 5 million US dollars available here as prize money, 2 million are to be paid out as victory bonuses and 3 million as team support. Similar to the EuRoC, this competition, which was recently presented at the robotics conference IROS in Hamburg, consists of three individual disciplines, which are, however, combined in a Grand Challenge at the end.

What is remarkable about this competition, with which the United Arab Emirates wants to drive the change from an Erdol to a knowledge-based society, is that it is to be held every two years. This combination of high prize money and regular rotation is so far unique. Regularly held robotics competitions such as RoboCup or Elrob have done quite well without financial incentives in recent years. Obviously, the work on a difficult task and the intense exchange of ideas at the tournaments are appealing enough for most researchers to decide to participate. However, the money is always accepted, especially when the cost of hardware is high.

How the tasks in the Arab competition will be shaped in the coming years has not yet been determined, says Lakmal Seneviratne of Khalifa University. He could follow the example of Darpa, which completely redefines the tasks for each of its competitions, or follow the example of RoboCup, which relies on continuity: Here, the competition scenarios remain essentially the same, but are made more difficult from year to year.

Nevertheless, the tasks of the first MBZIRC, the final of which is scheduled for February 2017, are similar to those of other competitions: on an open field the size of a football field, the first round will involve landing a flying robot on a moving vehicle. In the second stage, an unmanned vehicle must find another vehicle and operate a valve on its side. In the third tournament, a team of cooperating flying robots must find several static and moving objects. The finale combines all three challenges.

Race with exoskeletons

It remains to be seen whether the spectrum of robotics competitions will be permanently changed by highly endowed events like MBZIRC. For the time being, at any rate, new attractive tournaments can be organized even without prize money. Thus, on 8. October 2016 in Zurich will be held the first Cybathlon, the first competition for robotics technology to support the disabled. Six disciplines are planned, including a race with exoskeletons, obstacle courses for wearers of active prosthetic legs and arms, and a brain-computer interface race. 50 teams from 22 countries had already registered, said Dario Floreano of the ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne at the IROS workshop. A key goal of the competition, he explained, is also to develop standardized testing methods for body prosthetics and other assistive technology.

robots fight for honor

Picture: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

In fact, the images of the Cybathlon race tracks that Floreano showed were strongly reminiscent of the Rescue League arena at RoboCup, which also serves, among other things, to develop standard tests for robots. Obviously, robotics competitions not only advance technology, but also inspire one another. The Cybathlon, with its combination of man and machine, has also succeeded in what previous robot tournaments have struggled to do: it has been able to attract a wider audience than just technology fans.

One question remained open at the IROS workshop, which has also been discussed for years at the competitions themselves, without coming to a conclusive result: Whether and how much these events actually have to do with research? As a suggestion for a solution, I would like to quote the statement of a RoboCup participant, which was made during one of the many spontaneous conversations between the playing fields: "Those who do not find inspiration for their researches here have only themselves to blame."

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