Welcome To RoboMaster 2018
The ground is littered with nuts and bolts, wires and wheels, electric boards and a chaotic assortment of tools. The high ceiling is filled with chatter and nervous energy. Young engineers are sprawled out across the open space, attending to robots and discussing mechanics. Some are calm, and some are frantic; all are determined. Robots are being taken apart and repaired, and gadgets are being attached, tightened, and screwed. Two students nonchalantly wield a blowtorch by the exit. This is the teeming backstage of RoboMaster 2018, a robotics competition put on by DJI that gives university students a stage to showcase their engineering, strategy, and teamwork.
DJI is a prominent leader in the drone industry, but once a year the company shows off a different side to their technology. RoboMaster is an annual competition which takes place in Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of China. This season, the South China University of Technology took home first place along with 75,000 USD as the grand prize. Over 7,000 engineering students from around the world signed up for this year’s competition, creating nearly 200 teams representing China, United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau. Twitch, a live streaming video platform, covered commentary for the competition, bringing in a whopping total of 1,285,145 live views from over 20 countries.
A mere 15 feet away through a narrow corridor, Shenzhen Bay Stadium thunders with anticipation. Flashing lights and animated announcers create a scene of controlled chaos. Two opposing teams line up across the stage, separated by the championship trophy: a gleaming robotic arm. The captains shake hands briefly before each group retreats to their respective booths, complete with computer monitors and controllers.
After each round, volunteers and team members swarm the arena to repair the robots that have suffered damage during battle. The energized audience cheers, groans, and screams according to their loyalties. The exciting atmosphere is similar to that of an NBA game, something not lost on the man who envisioned it all.
“Anyone can name ten famous athletes and celebrities, but who can do the same for scientists?” asked Frank Wang, CEO of DJI.
“RoboMaster will do just that. It fuses engineering, gaming, and entertainment into a single event, where young engineers can take center stage. Here, they can prove to everyone how robotics can change our world.”
Promoting Robotics Since 2013
Innovation and advancement are what drive the competition, and what enables it to grow in size and impact every year since its inception in 2013. RoboMaster has come a far way over the past five years, and each season welcomes improved technology and innovative tactics.
“The scale of this competition is almost unparalleled. It really aims to highlight and celebrate innovation and technology,” reflects Betty Vogeley, a former competitor from the University of Washington.
In the arena, an ongoing battle is drawing huge reactions from the crowd. Blue and red robots slice across the arena on Mecanum wheels that enable the vehicles to move in any direction. A blue bot fires projectiles from up above, pelting an unsuspecting bot that the red team has maneuvered dangerously close to the blue team’s base. The engineers remain behind a glass screen in their respective booths, controlling the results of their hard work as if the battlefield is a computer game brought to life.
“RoboMaster involves technology that is incredibly recent. The competition is demanding things such as computer vision or machine learning, which are the big trends in tech right now; they’re in industries all across the robotics field,” explains Vogeley. Computer vision includes developing computers that can acquire, process, and analyze digital images or videos. Machine learning involves using statistical data to allow computers to learn without being explicitly programmed to do so.
With such complex tasks at hand, students must collaborate and try many different methods before coming up with an effective solution. Some teams keep to themselves and their mentors, but others are eager to learn from the talented pool of young engineers available. Shy at first, and then launching into an excited explanation, Li Derei from the Chengdu College of UESTC offers his opinion on collaboration.
“Besides winning, we came for the experience and to learn. We have access to other engineering students, and the opportunity to communicate with them and see how they do things differently.”
Someone else that shares Li’s outlook is Wu Junzhe from the Sino-British College, University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.
“Obviously during the competition, we want to win! But afterward, we’ll all talk and swap ideas. We get to compete against some pretty prestigious schools, and we can learn a lot from them. We watch as many matches as we can, and then apply what we’ve seen to our own techniques.”
Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the tension in the air. Vogeley discusses the difference from previous years. “This year, there’s a lot of new teams that are stressed out, and the whole event feels a bit more fast-paced. Teams are starting on different levels in terms of getting more resources or financial backing, and the environment is definitely becoming more competitive.”
This cutthroat aura is more heightened than previous years, and the students take their wins and losses very heavily. Experience has the upper hand as can be seen in the number of returning squads that make it to the finals. These schools have access to more funding and resources, enabling them to get further in the competition.
Wu’s teammate, Fang Weiyi, has a more unforgiving view of opponents. He has a serious air about him, and a sharp, disciplined attitude.
“Of course, we’re here to learn. But first and foremost, RoboMaster is a competition. There is no room for error, let alone sympathy for your enemy. This is where returning teams have an edge; they’re mentally tougher.”
When the next two teams take the stage, the captains refuse to shake hands at the appointed moment. Instead, they stand rigidly under the bright lights, faces impassive until they are ushered off the podium. The ensuing battle is quick and merciless, drawing raucous exclamations from the crowd.
The enthusiasm from these young engineers is infectious, and it is clear how much time and attention they devote to the event. Most schools must prepare for a full year to attend RoboMaster, Li explains, and for most, the last few months are hectic and all-consuming. The effect of this grueling preparation can be seen in the students dozing in secluded corners here and there.
His hands constantly tweaking a wire or tightening a bolt, Li muses, “It takes a lot of time and dedication. The closer to the competition we get, the less we sleep.” As if to demonstrate, he pokes a napping teammate in the leg and laughs when the other student barely stirs.
“RoboMaster is a very comprehensive event. People watching may think we’re just driving cars around, but if you take a look at the mechanics, they’re incredibly complex,” adds Fang while fiddling with a circuit board.
The blue bot from earlier has been gradually worn down. As the dregs of its health are drained by the unrelenting enemy robots, the battle is whittled down to one blue contender against three red. The armor-plated machines twist and turn to avoid being hit as they try to bring down the last robot between them and victory. Soon, it is all over, and the last blue bot is rendered immobile. The red team yells in celebration as the crowd mirrors their energy in the stands.
Creating for the Future
The competition is an amalgamation of invention, complex gameplay, and stringent rules. This chaos is much easier to navigate through if teams reach out to one another and share the things they have learned. RoboMaster may be a highly competitive battle, but at the heart of it all is the opportunity to develop and share technology.
The stadium empties of people and the noise slowly ebbs away. RoboMaster 2018 has seen another successful run with over 40,000 visitors. An exhibition of fierce determination as well as teamwork and collaboration, this season has proved again the enormous potential RoboMaster has to change the world. The event coalesces technical skill, teamwork, and entertainment into a platform for young engineers to implement and celebrate their talents. The knowledge they take from the competition and each other will allow them to expand their skillsets and create solutions for real-world applications in the future.
But this can all wait for now. Li is all smiles, immersed in the moment as he readies his bot for the next battle. It is almost time for his team to take the stage.
“You have to be ready for anything. The whole atmosphere is very tense, yet extremely exciting. It’s pure adrenaline.”