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HOME > No.4, Feb 2016 > Feature Story : Twenty Years of Progress with Robot Contests

Twenty Years of Progress with Robot Contests

Shinichi Suzuki

Toyohashi University of Technology can take pride in its achievement at being six times winners in the NHK Robot Contests for University Students, more than any other single institution. Professor Shinichi Suzuki has been providing advice on the competition to students over a long period of 20 years, as the advisor for the Robot Contest Club. Although they could not progress beyond the best 8 last time around, their almost fully automatic badminton robot drew much attention. Professor Suzuki does not want his students to simply come out victorious in these events but aims to raise their competence level, being mindful about the advancements achieved by robot technologies.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

Victories started as soon as he became involved

The NHK Robot Contest began in 1988 for Technical College students, and the contest for university students started in 1992. Toyohashi University of Technology has participated in the contest from the very first event, and Professor Suzuki became involved as the advisor for the Robot Contest Club at Toyohashi University of Technology just two years later, in 1994. The fact that Professor Suzuki’s laboratory happened to be located next to the club activity room prompted a student club member to ask him for his participation. Professor Suzuki immediately pulled off the remarkable achievement of guiding the students to win the competition in his first year. Since then he has continued to serve in his post as advisor for over 20 years.

“The year before I joined, our club had the misfortune of having a robot that completely stopped functioning, right in front of the audience. The students were frustrated and really wanted to clinch the victory the following year. So I decided to advise them in a variety of areas, such as the direction of the project, completion of design, and so on,” said Professor Suzuki, looking back on those days.

A topic is set for the Robot Contest each year, and it was “Soccer Robot” for 1994. The project involved a one-on-one duel of robots created by two teams, which competed to score goals against each other. The type of robots used at the time still had an operator riding and manipulating them.

“We created a robot that was completely different from the one we had made the previous year, by means such as adopting larger tires to make it more maneuverable. We now have in excess of 40 members in our Robot Contest Club, but back then, there were only a handful of members, and it required absolute commitment from everyone to get things done. We ended up winning the following year in 1995 as well, and that got me hooked on the robot contest.” Professor Suzuki laughed a moment, before continuing with a wry smile.
“After being involved for about ten years, I thought perhaps I should resign, but we managed to come in first in 1998, 2002, 2008, and 2009. I guess I got greedy with success and before I realized it, I had been involved with this project for over 20 years.”

Is it technology or strategy? The answer is in the technology

The history of the Robot Contest can be traced back to the “King of the Mountain” a contest held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988. It was a game that involved robots starting on either side of a mountain, which had been set up indoors. Whoever stacked the biggest load on top of the mountain won. The winner of the game, however, was a robot that only managed to bring one load to the top of the mountain and spent the rest of the time interfering with other robots, by utilizing its speed. Professor Suzuki noted, “This shocking outcome spread the appeal of robot contests both in terms of technology and strategy.”

In order to come out victorious in a robot contest, technology alone will not suffice. Creative and strategic thinking are also essential. A review of the participants in a competition for badminton robots in 2015 showcased an array of masterpieces conceived according to the ingenuity of the respective universities. These included one robot that held multiple rackets in its numerous hands and another given intensified agility by enhancing the maneuverability of the controller. The international version of the competition (ABU Asia-Pacific Robot Contest), which was held in November and pitted the winning teams from various university student robot contests against each other, even featured a robot entered by a Chinese team that recognized human emotions!

Against this backdrop, the badminton robot proposed by Toyohashi University of Technology on that occasion was made with such workmanship that the team considered it their crowning masterpiece. The robot’s movements were almost fully automated. The robot captured the image of a shuttle hit by the opponent with two units of high-speed cameras. It predicted and moved to the location of the shuttle drop position by solving equations comprised of Newtonian mechanics and fluid dynamics, then hit the shuttle back. While it was not capable of smashing the shuttle, it certainly had the accuracy to rally against a human opponent, and made for an enjoyably challenging opponent.

“The point in this instance was that the two robots had to operate in harmony, without obstructing the opponent. The movements of our robot were positively evaluated at the award ceremony. The robot was praised for the way it moved, as if it were dancing. I was quite thrilled about that,” said Professor Suzuki.

TUT Robot team vs. human

Although the robot did not progress beyond the best eight in the competition, due in part to bugs in the programming, it was nevertheless conferred the Design Award and Special Award. The badminton robot created by Toyohashi University of Technology was selected, together with the robot that won the contest, to be exhibited at the networking event of participants held after the contest. People crowded around our robot to catch a glimpse of it for themselves.

“I was consulted by the students at the very beginning, on whether or not to make the operation of the robot autonomous or manually controlled. I advised them that they should definitely aim for autonomous. The level of competition at these international contests has been increasing in recent years, and I felt that we should not only aim to win but also consider how we should win. I would like to see us competing with fully automatic and autonomous robots in the future. That, I believe, would raise the foundation of robot technology in Japan as a whole, and such is the responsibility vested in us as a prestigious institution that participates in robot contests. Even if we fail to win, the technology will remain with us for the next year. Strategy, on the other hand, is useful only until it is revealed. It is not like that with technology: even when your opponents find out how you did what you have done, it still is not that easy for them to replicate that technology.”

It is not only about craftsmanship, as theory is also essential

Professor Suzuki’s specialization is fracture mechanics. His work pertains to building theories, particularly regarding high-speed fracture phenomena. Unlike robots, this may appear to be a somewhat humble fundamental study, but it is an extremely important field that is concerned with guaranteeing the security of social infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels, and huge airplanes.

"I believe it is extremely important to create technologies that are based on science. Students who participate in the robot contests often display an outstanding ability to create by observing and mimicking, and then using their own hands. As a matter of fact, they are often recruited by companies. You see, while many students coming out of universities these days have never done work such as soldering, the students who participate in the robot contests can be hired with peace of mind in this respect. There are, of course, those who find it difficult to back up their efforts with theoretical evidence. It is not possible to hope for any dramatic leaps in technology if one neglects theories. In the end, theory and application, as well as practical implementation, are all very important.”

Demonstration at an International Conference
Demonstration at an International Conference

In addition to hardware, the emphasis on development is about to shift to software, as is the case in the industry as a whole. Theory will be essential when this happens. Moreover, the robot context topic for next year is “Clean Energy Recharging the World.” It is a difficult topic that has to do with manipulating eco-robots, which are hybrid robots, under very limiting conditions. Professor Suzuki told us of his aspiration to use these robot contests to nurture students in areas that do not merely require them to work with their hands, but equally involve aspects such as academic elements and structural programming of software.

Reporter's Note

Professor Suzuki’s original specialization was aerodynamics in the field of aerospace engineering. He witnessed man’s first lunar landing by the Apollo Project on television when he was still in high school. This inspired his yearning for flight rockets.

“In order to make an aircraft fly, a number of academic fields other than aerodynamics are in fact required, such as structural theories and flight dynamics. Similarly, robotics can be considered an integrated engineering discipline that consolidates a variety of academic fields, such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and the like. This may be the reason I was not uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming the advisor, even though the field is outside my specialization,” Professor Suzuki told me.

He said that he would like to write articles in the field of robotics, such as on collaborative work performed by robots, at some point in the future. His passion as the advisor for the Robot Contest Club is not declining; rather, Professor Suzuki appears to be heading toward new ground in his pursuit of further robot evolution.

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Researcher Profile

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki studied aerospace engineering until Masters level at Tokai University, and received his PhD. degree in 1980 from the University of Tokyo. He was also a visiting researcher at the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratory at CALTEC supported by MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) from 1998 to 1999. Currently, Dr. Suzuki is a professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts and Science and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Toyohashi University of Technology. His research interests are Aeronautics and Astronautics, High-Speed Mechanics and Optical Measurement.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of “Nature Interface” magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).