Inventors play hard at Canadian robotics contest

Robots resembling runaway factory hoppers roll around the Ontario Science Centre’s grand hall, tossing bright-coloured balls that look to be made of silly string.

The bewildering game takes place under a banner proclaiming, “Robots Rule Weekend.” The flag presides over two simultaneous events where robots and their makers play games.

On one side of the big room, pre-teen technicians demonstrate tiny robots made from components from Lego Mindstorms, the toy company’s robot-making division, while older students operate bigger bots built with kits provided by FIRST Robotics Canada.

The machines were made to compete in a worldwide competition founded by engineering superstar, Segway designer Dean Kamen.

Mathematician Karthik Kanagasabapathy works with the St. Catherine-based Simbotics, one of only two Canadian high school teams to win a world title in FIRST matches.

He’s enthusiastic about the benefits of making tech teaching a sport.

“Chalk-and-talk is dead,” Kanagasabapathy says. “With students now you can’t put them in a classroom where the teacher just drones on with equations. They get hands-on experience while still learning valuable theory.”

Brandon Pruniak, who wears the red shirt of Simbotics, is nearly a poster boy for the educational power of robot-building. When he was younger he made smaller, simpler Lego robots. When he enrolled at Lord Simcoe he joined its FIRST club. Now he studies mechanical engineering at Welland’s Niagara College.

“[Robot contests] made my choice, basically, where I want to go and realizing how many opportunities there is out there for doing this,” he says.

Across the floor, a generally more grown-up gang of hobbyists (except for one 10-year-old who takes a top prize) face off in the annual Canadian National Robot Games.

Home-grown gadgets compete in 11 categories to test the engineering chops of their creators.

The most obvious and well-known contest is robotic sumo wrestling, where remote-controlled wrestlers try to muscle each-another out of fighting rings, which become littered with wires, wheels and screws.

Other contests feature subtler tests of mechanical mettle, such as following the path of Etch-A-Sketch-like lines, navigating a maze to extinguish candle flames and simply walking straight, no mean feat for some bipedal bots.

CNRB founder and organizer Steve Jones, a forklift truck mechanic in his day job, is a robot hobbyist, himself.

“I’m definitely a self-taught kind of individual,” he says, adding, “there pretty much isn’t anything personally I can’t do or put together.”

Inventor Le Trung, who gets his own exhibit at the event, is another robotics maverick.

A chemist by training, Trung designed a human-like robot he’s named Aiko.

Waif-like and vaguely Asian, the robot primly sits on a table-top in a Santa hat. She greets passers-by in pleasant voice that remains expressionless, even when she scolds them for touching her.

Along with touch Aiko can sense hot and cold, recognize faces and read newspapers and medicine bottles. She can’t walk yet but Trung is working on that.

He hopes she can eventually be a companion for invalid and elderly folk, such as his 96-year-old grandmother.

The project depends on Trung’s passion, but not his formal training, since he has none.

“I’m not really an engineer but I’ve built robots since I was younger,” he says.

Jones has high hopes for Trung.

“What he’s doing is certainly the kind of innovation I think Canada’s capable of,” Jones says. “If he keeps going the way he’s going he will have the first android robot in Canada.”

Jones sees his work with the CNRG as something of a mission to spark innovation. He feels Canadians are falling behind in the field or robotics right when it’s getting interesting.

“My opinion is robots are where computers were 20 years ago,” he says. “So we’re on that cusp of new innovation. The kids here today could be the next Bill Gates of the robotics community tomorrow.”