June 1, 2006 At an international high-school contest based in Connecticut, students compete with their home-made robots. The goal for the robots is to navigate a maze, find a fire, and put it out in the shortest amount of time -- and without any external input. Electrical engineers hope the contest will some day lead to technology that can be applied in real fires.
HARTFORD, Conn.--In a battle of electronics, engineering and a little fire, one of the biggest amateur robot competitions heats up. It's a battle of the 'bots ... and the 'bot-minded!
"I've wanted to be an inventor for the majority of my life in this, and I love robots," says 14-year-old robot enthusiast Taylor Niver.
With a love of robots and a few nuts and bolts, kids compete during the annual Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest in Hartford, Connecticut, challenging robots to fight fires in a flash!
"The first goal is to make robots that put out a fire in the shortest amount of time," says David Ahlgren, an electrical engineer and director and host of the contest.
Robots navigate through a maze and have three minutes to find a burning candle and put it out. Ahlgren says the robots have to be autonomous and must move through the maze all on their own.
Heat sensors detect a warm flame. Infrared light helps steer robots, warning of objects in its path. Most robots complete their assigned task, but electrical engineers have bigger goals in mind for students.
"It's been, kind-of, the long-term goal of this contest for somebody who comes here to develop a firefighting robot that actually we can put in the home," Ahlgren says.
This year's contest may be over, but it's not too late to start planning ahead. Competitor and Junior engineering student Allison Mathis hopes she'll do better next time. "I'm frustrated that it was such a mechanical failure," she says, "but next year is always possible."
You can bet this bot battle is not over!
The contest draws students from all over the world. The top winners this year were teams from Israel and China. Robots compete in levels ranging from junior -- eighth grade or younger -- to expert.
BACKGROUND: Trinity College hosted the 13th annual Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest in April in Hartford, Conn. The goal of the contest is to encourage inventors of all ages and skill levels to develop computer controlled fire-fighting robots that can find and extinguish a candle in a model house, in the most efficient and reliable way. Ultimately, such competitions may help further advance robotics technology.
HOW ROBOTS WORK: Robots are made of roughly the same components as human beings: a body structure with moveable joints; a muscle system outfitted with motors and actuators to move that body structure; a sensory system to collect information from the surrounding environment; a power source to activate the body; and a computer "brain" system to process sensory information and tell the muscles what to do. Robots are manmade machines intended to replicate human and animal behavior. Roboticists can combine these basic elements with other technological innovations to create some very complex robotic systems.
ABOUT A.I.: Robots and computer networks are always evolving intelligent consciousness in popular science fiction. But while modern scientists have made great strides in building computers that can mimic logical thought, they still haven't cracked the code of human emotion and consciousness. There are two prevailing schools of thought on artificial intelligence. Proponents of "strong AI" consider that all human thought can be broken down into a set of mathematical operations. They expect that they will one day be able to replicate the human mind and create a robot capable of both thinking and feeling, with a sense of self -- the stuff of classic science fiction. Think of the robot Number Five from the 80s movie Short Circuit, who suddenly realized, frightened, that he could be "disassembled" by the scientists who made him. "Weak AI" proponents expect that human thought and emotion can only be simulated by computers. A computer might seem intelligent, but it is not aware of what it is doing, with no sense of self or consciousness.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.