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National ABU Robocon’19

July 1, 2019

The ABU Robocon is an annual Asian-Oceanian college competition, where robots are pitted against each other to perform complicated tasks in limited time. The competition was started in 2002 by the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union and is one of the most popular events among collegiate students interested in Robotics.

Each country is represented by a single team, and for this purpose, national college teams fight it out in the National ABU Robocon, India and the winning team competes in the international championship. Team Robocon IITR started off as a group of a few robot enthusiasts 10 years ago, and has now evolved into a full fledged hardworking campus group that aims to win this national competition, and represent India on the international platform.

WatchOut! decided to interview the Team Leader of Team Robocon, Bhavya Goswami, to find out various details of the competition, and to obtain a first-hand account of their experience on the national stage this year.

1. What are the different stages of the tournament? What stage did you finish at?

Till 2018, the competition used to have only a single stage which included the Prelims followed by League Matches among top 24 teams with 2 matches per team in both of them, followed by the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals.

But this year, the structuring of the tournament was revised. This time the tournament consisted of 3 stages : 1) Design documentation – In this we had to submit proper documentation of our robot which consisted of its mechanical design, electronics, strategies, prototypes, and alternate designs; 2) Working Video – In this we had to send them a proper detailed video showing them the working of the robot as mentioned in the stage-1 documents; 3) The competition which included prelims, quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals.

In the prelims, each team gets to play two matches. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is, since this round is not about finishing the problem statement. This round is all about collecting the maximum number of points. The top 8 teams go through to the quarterfinals. Here the matches are all knockouts and the match comes to a halt the minute one of the two teams finishes the problem statement.

We finished 6th overall, and won the ‘Judges Special Award’ and ‘Quarter finalist award’.

2. What was the format of the matches, as in was it a multiplayer competition or did it consist of one on one matches?

The competition consisted of only one on one matches. It was just like a duel between two warriors in a grand arena, the only difference being not actually fighting with each other, but completing the problem statement as quickly as possible.

3. What were the parameters of judging? Were there some tests or requirements to be fulfilled?

Each year, a different country in the Asia Pacific region gives a unique, completely new problem statement with new sets of rules and constraints. As per each problem statement, we have to make a specified number of robots (generally two) from scratch. These robots need to complement each other to complete certain tasks in less than 3 minutes. Also, yes there are always a lot of requirements which need to be fulfilled like weight, dimensions, pressure and stuff with lots of rules and constraints.

4. Was there any theme or template for the competition? If yes,what was it and how did you prepare for it?

Yes, each year the problem statement is based on a certain theme. This year the theme was Great Urtuu which means sharing of knowledge in Mongolian. According to this theme, we had to make a wheeled manual robot and a fully automatic Quadruped robot. They both needed to coordinate with each other to manipulate various objects and navigate in the game field, in the most efficient way possible.

The quadruped robot had to climb on obstacles like ropes, boxes, slopes on its own. It was really a challenging task. Even top universities and institutes haven’t been able to design it yet and most of them are completely unfamiliar with the concept.

5. How did you prepare for the competition this time around? What all efforts were put in by the team members?

Generally, we start working even before the announcement of the problem statement. We familiarise ourselves with the latest advances in electronics, sensors, navigation, simulations, and we design and develop various mecha-tronic modules which can be used in our problem statement. After the announcement of the problem statement, we brainstorm to choose the most efficient course of action and then work accordingly. We create multiple prototypes, then select the one which is most well equipped to handle the given problem.

After joining IITR, this was the process which redefined innovation for me. It is really fulfilling when you can create something from your imagination and it is a feeling that can’t be expressed. We first ideate the whole model, and subsequently put in a lot of effort actually building it, and it shows in the way the robot works.

The efforts that our team puts in the robots we create each year are incomparable. We sacrifice a lot of stuff, including our academics, sleep, friends, relationships and much more, just to make the best robot in the country. Those efforts cannot be expressed in words here.

6. What has been the history of Robocon in IITR? What have been our achievements in the past?

Robocon IITR was started by a group of 3-4 friends with great enthusiasm for robotics in 2009. They participated by chipping in their own pocket money and eventually won the Best Debut Award. Even though they lacked the resources, they completed the tasks on their own. I’ve even heard stories that our seniors were so resourceful that once they wrapped the rubber rim of pressure cookers on wooden circular slabs to make traction wheels. Then over the years as the interest in robotics increased in our campus, our team progressed. So much that we won the Best Aesthetic Award along with the 5th rank in 2014 as well as in 2016. Last year we secured the 7th rank along with Best Innovative Design Award and this year we achieved 6th rank with Judges Special Award and Quarter-Finalist Award. We are still connected with all our alumni and founding members and they keep motivating us and help us to win the competition with the same enthusiasm.

7. Tell us about your robot. Its architecture, the essential technology etc?

Our manual robot had a three-wheel Omni drive for holonomic movements and grippers for completing the task. These were amalgamated with various sensors like encoders, ultrasonic distance sensor, pressure sensors, gyroscope sensor, etc and various actuators like motors, pneumatics and servos. We used various equipments from Tinkering Lab like lathe, 3D printers, PCB etching machine, drills, welding machine and various assorted tools to manufacture the different parts.

We designed two automatic robots- link based and 3 axes linear movement based, both are one of a kind in our institute.

8. What challenges does a venue present? How was IIT-D, as a host for the competition?

IIT Delhi really surprised us as a host. They made a few controversial decisions like delaying the competition, reducing the number of teams in the competition and rejecting teams after they had constructed their robots. But these decisions were based on an analysis of events from previous years and so the conducting team stood by them, despite the backlash from Robocon community.

As there were lesser teams this time around, it was a lot easier for them to manage everything, and also more enjoyable for us. Transportation services too, were provided round the clock, which made the commute much easier from last time around. Each member was provided a different room for their stay. Arrangement for food too, was a lot better than last time. The management was such that these trivial things did not interfere with our preparations like they usually do. Efforts were taken so that each team got proper practice slots before tournaments and knockout matches. Getting these practice slots was a huge headache last time around. IIT Delhi also took a bold decision of straying from tradition and not allowing any team to stay in the pit area from 11 pm to 8 am. Though many people disliked this decision and opposed it, I think it helped us to strategize and get a good night’s sleep.

During the last two practice slots, our robots didn’t do well which left us disheartened. Even the senior members of the team couldn’t concentrate, and we couldn’t practice at night due to new regulations but we somehow gathered ourselves, motivated the team and told them to get over it and just go to sleep. And the next day our robots worked just fine. We were the first team to complete the problem statement in the tournament and finished 2nd at the points table in the prelims. I think it was due to the new rules that we could put up such a performance.

There were some snags too. Due to smaller arenas, our alumni, who came from far away couldn’t see the event live. Overall, the hosts did a fine job in upgrading the quality of the event. Their efficiency in managing the event helped us to concentrate on the matters that were most important, rather than worrying about food and stuff.

9. Were there any particular challenges you faced ? How well did you tackle such situations during the competition?

Our team’s timeline used to be broadly fixed each year but this year we had some problems as the competition was delayed. At the time of documentation we were writing our initial ideas whereas we should’ve completely fabricated our robots and started practising. Not surprisingly, at this stage we grabbed one of the lower ranks. Our inability to explain our project to authorities was an eye opener. For video submission we planned to take help from CineSec, but that didn’t pan out, as they were busy. So we did it ourselves and created a video. It was so good that we got 98 marks out of 100 and that brought us in the top 8 teams .

The third stage was the culmination of all that we had done and hence was more difficult than the first two. It is really tricky to go past the prelims, in to the knockout. So we prepared for the final stage from the start.

The final stage experience was full of highs and lows. It was a one day event with two practice days before it for the teams to practice. During practice we tested, improved and calibrated our robots properly. Initially, we did well in the practice slots, but in the later stages we started making mistakes, and the robots malfunctioned. The pressure of the situation was really high. There was an issue with our robot and it was a time crunch situation, but we successfully overcame it. For completing the task and reaching the quarterfinals, we had to get 100 points and cross a Sand Dune. Very few teams before us could manage it. But we crossed the dune and secured 100 points. Our strategy this time was to go for the completion of the problem but as a contingency plan we knew completing only one part would get us through. As it turned out, the team did amazingly well and completed each part.

We were all amazed. It was our high point of the tournament and the team was really confident. We finished 2nd in the top 8 teams for the quarterfinals, and our match was against the Government College of Engineering, Awsari. And though we were ahead most of the time, we failed at throwing a thing called Shegai twice. Taking nothing away from the opposing team, we really were quite unlucky in that match. It took us some time to accept what had happened. You can watch the match on Youtube. Although we were ahead most of the time, it was just the last 10 seconds when we lost the match. It took some time to sink in. Many team members couldn’t help but cry, and the whole arena watched in stunned silence. Later on the Judges Special Award was a bit of a consolation.

10. Apart from this competition, what other events and projects do you engage in? How does that help in preparation of the final goal and how does that help in further research?

We don’t participate in other competitions or events because Robocon alone is one heck of a competition if you’re preparing it for seriously and with the intention of winning. But yes, we do a lot of projects and research in our workshop. We always work to improve our mistakes and learn about things which can help us with the next problem statement. These research projects help us in developing better robots.

11. How do you guys start working on a project? How do you think of the design and abilities of a robot and how do you proceed on it? After the conclusion of any year’s competition, when do you start preparing for the next one?

We have a certain idea phase in which all the team members think independently and come up with some random ideas. We discuss those ideas and then decide how to prototype them. Sometimes we do a literature review to increase our technical knowledge in certain aspects. We design various mechanisms, simulate them, then fabricate and then test them, and finally choose the best one to incorporate it in our robot. Generally we start working on the next problem statement just one month after the completion of the previous one.

12. Would you like to comment on your result this year? What were you aiming for and how much could you realize?

We aimed at making the best robot in the tournament and winning the competition. We, as a team, have the caliber and technical knowledge to win the tournament. We are making technical advancements at a very rapid pace and this is evident from the last few performances. We have entered the knockout stages in 3 of the last four outings. It’s just that we are not able to get over the ‘forsaken’ quarterfinal line somehow. We keep losing in the quarter finals and almost every time it is the small things that cost us the tournament. We as a team, have always covered all the big things properly, but we’ve failed at executing certain small things at crucial moments.

In the last couple of years, our robot designs and performances have been better than various Robocon giants like MIT Pune, VIER and COEP Pune. This year too, only three teams in total were able to complete the problem statement and we were one of them.

These are good results but we want to be the best team in the tournament. It’s not going to be easy, but we are confident that we will be able to achieve our dream soon.

13. What all changes and improvements do you wish to make next time around?

First of all we need to analyse the situation thoroughly. Find out exactly why we don’t qualify for the semis. I think we need to improve our practice methods. I saw the practice slots of other good teams, and they are quite organised and everyone seems to know their business. There is no unnecessary shouting or confusion. We on the other hand plan our practice slots in the competition and it is really unfair to ask the operators to behave exactly in the way we need. This has been the main problem. We waste a lot of crucial time in practice slots and we need to make ourselves better at that. We need to simulate time crunches and pressure situations so that we can prepare for realistic competition conditions. There are certain other things as well, and the team will properly acknowledge them in the team meeting next semester.

14. This year, the events of Robocon were delayed significantly. What challenges did this predicament put before you? How much did it affect the proceedings of this year’s preparations and how will it affect your next season’s schedule?

This year’s competition was delayed significantly. One of the biggest problems that we faced this year was that the people from third year (the year which leads the team) had to go for their internships. Though the competition is important, career decisions quite obviously matter more and hence they had to prioritise their internships. Hence our team was left with a weakened leadership. And though the sophomores are technically sound, they aren’t adept at the decision making process. We did communicate with our seniors online, but the effect wasn’t the same. Also, the delay in the competitions disturbed our mindset and this affected our plans. But we can’t use that as an excuse as it was the same for other teams too.

Also, we couldn’t start our summer training program on time. So now we need to be proactive and make use of the time that is left judiciously. I am sure that the next leader will definitely take that into account and act accordingly.

15. Well, we’re definitely proud of your performance on the national stage! Any concluding remarks?

Thank you.

The thing is that we do not have a decent marketing team so there is no way in which we can communicate our thoughts or reach out to the people of the institute in an effective way. We have a Robocon IITR page (do follow it if you are interested) but that is not enough. I want to thank WatchOut! for giving us this opportunity to express ourselves. I would like to use this opportunity and tell the IITR junta that robocon is not just a technical project. It’s competitive robotics - it’s like a sport. It develops character. You will learn a lot of engineering here but you will also learn human skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. You will learn to stay calm and make decisions in the most pressing situations. You will learn to accept defeat after putting in a year of hard work. Though it seems a bit scary at first, this is something that makes you an adept and well-rounded human being.

Technical knowledge is what we all crave to get after getting into an institute like this. I know many of the young minds dream of making something work and not just formulate a principle on paper. And this is what we do. We realize the designs of our imagination and make it work at whatever cost, and you will learn that this cost is not just technical expertise.

And to all the fans of Team Robocon IITR (whatever small bunch of fans we have), thank you for supporting us and don’t worry, we are getting there. You will soon see Team Robocon IIT Roorkee representing India at the international platform!