One day last month, a black drone lifted off the grass and flew around the University of Washington’s bucolic outdoor Sylvan Grove Theater, the small craft’s six propellers buzzing like a swarm of especially angry bees.
UW student Jeonghyun Kress used a handheld controller to make the drone swoop, lift, drop and soar in front of the university’s 157-year-old white Ionic columns. It was such an arresting site that a dozen people taking a tour of the UW campus dropped all pretense of listening to their guide and watched.
Little did they know that this was no ordinary drone.
Modified by the UW’s Advanced Robotics Club, the drone has two additional propellers to support a rotating turret on its underside that can shoot up to 200 marble-sized plastic pellets.
Later this month, the drone and a small army of seven hand-built robots, along with 25 of the students who helped build them, will go to Shenzhen, China, for the RoboMaster college robot competition.
The international challenge this year is drawing 185 universities, mostly from Asia, to participate in a vast arena in what’s commonly called China’s Silicon Valley. It’s sponsored by the Chinese company DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of civilian and commercial drones. It’s considered the biggest student robotics competition in the world.
Top prize is $80,000 and bragging rights for a year.
But for the UW students, perhaps the biggest reward is the work itself — creating a cohesive team, doing hands-on engineering and computer science, solving problems with programming and electronics and mechanics, and then traveling to China to see how it all plays out.
“I absolutely love this club,” said Christina Durr, a UW sophomore who has spent the better part of a year on the team designing and constructing “soldier” robots that use pneumatics to shoot pellets out of a turret.
Durr, who graduated from Everett High in 2017, was a member of her high school’s robotics team, so when she started at the UW last fall, she sought out a robotics club to join. The work has included a crash course in pneumatics and lots of hands-on practice. “It’s not something I’d ever learn in any of my classes,” she said.
The UW club is one of just 10 from universities representing North America in the RoboMaster competition, which starts July 17 and runs for 13 days.
“They’re very well organized, and they have recruited a huge team,” said electrical engineering professor Blake Hannaford, who advises the club. “A lot of them have a ton of experience from high-school robotics. This is the varsity now.”
Most high-school competitions involve robots that shoot whiffle balls, or launch big balls into nets. Few high-school teams build robots that shoot projectiles at each other, as they do in RoboMaster.
The tournament is based on video-game culture and eSports, a form of competitive gaming that often uses a multiplayer online battle arena. During the tournament, the UW team’s eight robots — including three “soldier” robots, the drone and a “hero” robot that fires golf balls at a furious speed — do battle in an obstacle-filled arena.
Are there any ethical concerns about building robots that can shoot projectiles, a technology that could be adapted for military applications? Club member Frank Liu said members have discussed those issues. “However, we see RoboMasters as an engineering challenge that has a game component,” he said. “We hope that the technology can be used for fun and educational uses.”
DJI doesn’t sell military drones, but last year, the U.S. Army ordered troops to stop using the company’s off-the-shelf drone models because of the potential of “cyber vulnerabilities,” including concerns that the company could be sharing flight information with the Chinese government. DJI has pushed back, paying for an independent study that concluded that DJI did not access photos, videos or flight logs generated by the drones unless drone operators voluntarily chose to share them.
Speaking of RoboMaster, DJI spokesman Benjamin Popper said the company “wanted to create a new kind of sport, one that demanded players combine a wide array of skills for different disciplines to have a successful team.”
The entertainment factor is big, too: Last year, more than 40,000 attended the live matches, and another 26 million watched the tournament stream online, he said.
With the exception of the drone, which is a modified version of an off-the-shelf DJI Matrice 100, all of the robots were designed and built by club members by hand. (Club members say they have not tested the drone’s firing mechanism, in case doing so would violate any Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The FAA prohibits drone operators from operating in a careless or reckless manner, or to “allow an object to be dropped … in a manner that creates an undue hazard to persons or property.”)
With its venue at a major sports arena, and with thousands of fans watching each match, the tournament is an intense experience, said Liu, who’s in charge of the club’s leadership board and leads the refiller robot team.
“You feel the heat of the spotlights in your face, you feel the pressure of competition, and you see thousands of other hopeful students all vying to be the next RoboMasters champions,” he said.
Rebuilding the club
After half the team graduated last year, the club — which is in its third year — had just 10 returning members. So in the fall of 2017, recruiting new members was a top priority. “We drove our old robots all around Red Square, around campus, and caught a lot of people’s eyes,” said Jeremy Moon, club executive director.
More than 100 new members signed up. And then the work began.
While most of the new members had experience with high-school robotics, many needed to learn some basic skills: an introduction to circuits, computer-assisted design, electronics. Club adviser Hannaford brought in UW alumni engineers, now working at local companies, to offer practical experience with design issues.
For more than nine months, the team has worked in the basement of the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, in a messy, interesting space filled with boxes of tools and parts, spools of 3D printer filament and parts of half-constructed robots.
One end of the room is stocked with student fuel: bags of chips, cups of noodles, soft drinks, several coffee machines. It’s the only engineering club on campus with a dedicated space for doing its work.
Domino’s, the club’s main sponsor, delivers pizza for free.
Slowly, the robot designs began to take shape, aided by technology like 3D printers, which make it easy to produce customized parts.
Moon and several others who went to Shenzhen in 2017 had ideas about how to make their team more competitive. The winning team didn’t necessarily have the best-designed robots — rather, they’d spent a lot of time practicing, and they worked well together. Practice and team-building became a focus.
One of the practical obstacles of preparing for RoboMaster is that they can’t just run around campus practicing their robot-driving, projectile-shooting skills. The robots do have a tendency to put holes in the walls, although “it’s fun, when you get two or three of them, you find a room that’s not easily damaged and then you play a few rounds,” said club President Eric de Winter.
Team members must operate the robots from a room outside the arena, using each robot’s cameras to steer and aim, while also trying to defend their own targets and complete tasks in the arena.
That made it imperative to build an accurate simulation of the competition.
The club turned to a new member, Marlena Rehder, who was on Garfield High’s robotics team last year and also had experience designing video games. She and her team built a simulation of the tournament that could be played on a computer.
Club members use the simulation to get a feel for how to guide the robots and develop winning strategies.
That’s how they discovered that the hero robot, which fires golf balls, is “ridiculously strong — it can take out a soldier robot in like three hits,” Rehder said. “That’s definitely where we’re going to be focusing most of our attention, and we wouldn’t have known that without the simulation.”
Rehder estimates she’s spent 10 hours a week since this fall working on the club projects. She has an internship at a local startup this summer, so she won’t be able to go to China. But she’ll checking her phone for updates.
“I’m going to be constantly texting my friends asking, what just happened, what just happened,” she said.
This is only the second time the UW has entered the competition, and with 185 teams competing, coming out on top is a longshot. But maybe that’s not the point.
The UW students have gotten hands-on practice at building complex machines, used coding skills to build simulations from scratch, taught themselves lessons in leadership and team building, and gained experience in running a project as if it were a startup business.
Even making travel plans for 25 people and figuring out how to ship eight projectile-shooting robots was a project in and of itself. “There were tons of valuable life experiences beyond robotics,” Moon said.
Or, as Rehder put it: “This club prepares you like no other.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.