With one final robot defeated, a siren bellows throughout the arena. A team of young engineers leave their control booth one last time and trade it for the podium. 32 universities from around the world have eliminated each other from the battlefield. Now, the Tigers from the South China University of Technology hoist a golden robotic arm as the newly crowned champions of RoboMaster 2017.
When you sit in the arena or at home watching the live feed, it’s easy to take in DJI’s leading robotics competition at face value: a week of bot-to-bot warfare, turrets blazing and wheels spinning left and right. In truth, this is a year’s worth of commitment to learn, cooperate, and find the keys to victory.
Here, RoboMaster finds itself out of its infancy, poised to grow into a global phenomenon.
Then and Now
Since 2013, the RoboMaster mission has been to make engineering an all-out spectacle. This competition encourages creativity, fosters talent, and expands the possibilities of robotic technologies. Five years later, these same goals drive competitors to challenge and inspire each other. Each season brings smarter robots, unique designs, and novel strategies. This philosophy has also inspired DJI to increase the scope of RoboMaster in recent years.
The 2017 season saw a massive expansion in DJI’s outreach campaign. A 100% boost in international participation from 2016 welcomed university teams from the US, UK, Singapore, Canada, Germany, and Macau. Broadcast juggernaut Twitch provided live streaming and commentary for every match. If the drama that unfolded on the battlefield wasn’t enough, there’s the RoboMaster anime. Japanese animation studio Dandelion produced the series, chronicling the thrilling highs and lows of a competition season.
The truth of the 2017 RoboMaster season is that DJI’s commitment to turn this into a global event is wholly unprecedented. But why the drive?
“Anyone can name ten famous athletes and celebrities, but who can do the same for scientists?” asked Frank Wang, CEO of DJI, when he envisioned this robotics challenge.
“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.”
June 2017: The Buzz at RoboMaster HQ
With two months to go until the final tournament in August, RoboMaster headquarters is in a flurry. A year-round effort, the RoboMaster main building and every engineer in it are testing innovations, theories, rules, and gameplay. The goal: raise the bar of the competition every season.
Twenty minutes from the DJI’s global headquarters in Shenzhen — China’s Silicon Valley — an unassuming address at a local industrial park is working around the clock from within. Past the clean front desk, the interior of RoboMaster HQ is a hive of activity. Young employees create space on the ground for themselves as they hunch over test bots. Computers and empty desks line the open rooms. Floors are riddled with nuts, bolts, wheels, and wires: the makings of a battlefield bot.
Freyman Song, a RoboMaster Marketing Specialist, navigates through the frenzy. “Everyone on this team has something to contribute because we’re all fans or competitors.
Whatever wild idea comes to mind is tested. The ground floor is a warehouse converted into a permanent testing battlefield. Mock teams try suggested gameplay rules changes or robot modifications. One young engineer, once a RoboMaster competitor, launches golf balls onto the battlefield with a self-made catapult. There’s no word yet if his suggestion will come to the final stage.
Looking on with a wry smile, Song says that such trial-and-error attitude is what gives the competition such spontaneity.
“Everyone is here to improve a game they want to play,” he muses.
August 2017: Hard Work Pays Off
Teams, both homegrown and from abroad, fill the interior of Shenzhen Stadium. The season opened in 2016 with 200 registered teams. Regional eliminations have shaved that number to just 32 in this ultimate arena. The opening rounds of the RoboMaster 2017 Final have finally begun.
After a few valiant matches, the University of Washington has finally been knocked out of the tournament. Undeterred, Sherman Xia walks through the foyer of Shenzhen Stadium with a large remote controller glued to his hands. Wherever he goes, he takes his Standard robot with him — unloaded, of course.
“It’s kind of like walking a dog,” he remarks, dodging passers-by without skipping a beat. A few curious children have formed a makeshift parade behind his mechanical Fido.
Xia is the captain of the UW Huskies, using his newfound extra time to volunteer. He’s guiding visitors, speaking with media, and providing color commentary for the Twitch live stream.
As a Chinese citizen studying in America, Xia provides the essential language and culture bridge. His responsibilities included advocating for funding, as a single robot in the group of six costs at least $3,000. When the team fell short, he pitched in $5,000 himself. All for a single idea.
“People who watch this match might be just seeing pellets flying and robots chasing each other. However, I love the science that we put to use here,” he enthuses.
In the thick of battle, every bot employs sophisticated technologies. Computer vision allows robots to recognize and act on number patterns on the field. This feature also serves as the stimuli for self-driving cars to determine speed, direction, and safety maneuvers. Even the futuristic mecanum wheels on every bot are currently being developed for industry. Warehouse forklifts could strafe left and right in tight spaces, rather than rely on a limited turning radius of a traditional drivetrain.
Some tech can even save lives.
“The control algorithms for accurate turret auto-aim employ the same exact principles of a robotic surgical device. The science is right there for everyone to see.”
Virginia Tech’s captain, Qin Youming, is the embodiment of his team: restless, hungry, and ready for more. As their first RoboMaster tournament, things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Upon arrival, they had constructed none of their robots. They took 14-hour shifts to build each robot one by one. These untested robots worked well for the first few matches, but unforeseen glitches and technical hiccups plagued the team from all sides.
“I think I got 20 hours of sleep since I came here two weeks ago,” he adds.
With such a huge commitment for an extracurricular activity, would they even entertain a return for next year?
“Absolutely!” the team answered without hesitation.
“When we get home, we’re going to call on other universities to put together their own teams next season.”
Such determination is even more critical for these international teams. They arrive from all corners of the globe with about 20 members in tow. On the other hand, Chinese teams arrive 60-strong, accompanied by professors and other mentors. Nevertheless, Youming is undeterred because they founded their group upon one defining quality.
“Communication. Everyone on this team is here because we’ve learned to communicate with each other. We could have picked stronger scientists and players, but this is a year-long team sport. We knew that effective collaboration was important above all.”
One who shares this unflinching spirit is Betty Vogeley, a returning competitor for UW and RoboMaster intern. Vogeley is investigating the different ways that could make the competition an American sensation. For her, the interdisciplinary aspect is what motivated her to join robotics competitions since high school. It’s what she believes will contribute to RoboMaster’s appeal in years to come.
“In all the years that I’ve been doing robotics, I’ve never once been bored,” she reflects.
“There’s always something new to explore and accomplish, and not just in engineering. You don’t even have to be a scientist to appreciate and participate.”
“Robotics is an expensive venture that requires sponsorships, and therefore marketing, PR, and incredible social skills. Everyone on the team has a unique ability that has become a necessity for us to succeed throughout the year.”
Back to the Circuit Board
The RoboMaster 2017 Final in Shenzhen was another resounding success, showing how far it has come in four years. The Twitch live stream generated 815,000 total views, with 456,000 unique visitors from 20 countries, indicating that an international audience is quickly expanding. Each year teams, return home with more experience, lessons learned, and the determination to do more.
Back in Shenzhen, long after the arena clears and the confetti has settled on the ground, the battlefield will be emptied and taken apart. Bots will be assessed, inventoried, and disassembled. But come September, the Official 2018 Rulebook will be released and registration for the season will open. The only question remains: do you have what it takes to be a RoboMaster?