Autonomous Robots compete to beat the field
The meaning of individual robots is put into relief when they face competition. This week I watched the National Instruments (NI) Autonomous Robotics Competition finals at Macquarie University as 27 teams placed their robots onto the playing field in the Lotus Theatre.
The agonistic framing of the competition makes the more capable robots (including two from UNSW who took the top spots) stand out. The weaker robots that failed to start, or got stuck or lost on the course, point to how challenging the task is. The ritual of competition blesses the robots as participating in a higher calling. Judges circulate. An MC commentates. A DJ plays motivational music. The competitors watch nervously as their autonomous charges face their fate alone on the field.
The teams of engineering and mechatronics students had built their robots from a standard platform from sponsor National Instruments. But their robots took many shapes: some more polished space-ship shapes; others jerry-rigged with sticky tape, and another more quirky entry with a toy dog driver and flashing lights on the back (see video). The team with this robot stood out in their colourful headgear.
The robots had to complete on an agriculturally themed course, with the brief ‘Go, Sow, Grow’. They set off from a home square, crossing diagonally to load up some ‘seeds’ (red foam cubes) into a holding bay on the robot’s back. From here, they found their way onto the ‘field’, placed the seeds on darkened furrows, and returned home. In the later rounds the robots had to dodge randomly placed pot-plants, and drop a larger number of seeds.
Of course the theme was pointedly directed towards one of the domains of innovation in contemporary robotics: agricultural applications. These applications have been most notably addressed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. The competition has the ideological function of proselytising this field of robotics. In miniaturising the dynamics of this field, the competition legitimises the broader prospects of agricultural robotics.