With their electronic voices, blinking lights, and metallic bodies, robots have been popular since first introduced.
In fact, after Robbie the Robot was featured in the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, he won so many fans that that he appeared in several more movies and television shows. And, with the popularity of the Star Wars series, the droids 3CPO, R2D2, and, most recently, BB8, are some of the most recognizable stars around the world.
These robots fly in spaceships and have bigger-than-life adventures. However, most robots lead pretty straightforward lives. Robots are human-created machines that are designed to perform certain tasks. Unlike their fictional cousins, most robots are not designed to look like people or to have human qualities. This doesn’t mean that they are unimportant, though.
Some robots help doctors perform surgery. Medical robots are small enough that surgeons do not need to make large incisions to reach a patient’s internal organs. Because robots can enter through small incisions, patients can heal a lot faster after undergoing an operation.
Other robots work deep under the earth in mines. Mining for resources like coal or ore is often dangerous work. Today, remote-controlled robots can perform risky tasks once performed by humans. These robot miners can not only break up rock, they can also transport it to the Earth’s surface. A human operator controls the robot from a safe location away from the mine.
Although they don’t appear in movies or books, some robots actually do fight battles. However, these battles take place in classrooms and theaters on Earth, not in faraway space. These robotics competitions give kids interested in technology a chance to compete against other robot designers and win prizes. In a robotics competition, robots are required to compete against one another other in performing a specific task. The robots who perform these tasks the fastest and the best can win prizes.
Many science organizations sponsor robotics competitions. NASA’s Robotics Education Project site lists more than 25 of them. If you’re wondering why NASA is interested in robots instead of rockets, stars, and planets, you may be surprised to learn that most NASA astronauts have been robots, not humans. All of the unmanned spacecraft NASA has used to explore the other planets have been flown by robots.
Robotics competitions are not only popular in the United States. They take place around the world.
Recently, students interested in robotics gathered in Poza Rica in the Mexican state of Veracruz for Robochallenge Mexico 2017. This two-day tournament was held in conjunction with the first National Robotics and Mechatronics Congress at the National Institute of Technology of Mexico (TecNM). The competition was popular. Over 2,000 people attended each day of the event.
The competition included 600 robots along with their human inventors. The participants included students from Mexico, as well as competitors from Brazil, Japan, Colombia, Ecuador, and Romania. While the team from Japan received one gold medal, all the other medals were won by TecNM students. In all, the TecNM students won nine gold, nine silver, and five bronze medals.
Next, some of the TecNM students will attend another robotics competition called RobotChallenge 2017. This competition is in Beijing, China, from August 4-6. One of the students, Julián Rafael Hernández, said that he is excited about traveling to China. Julián wants to someday design robots for a living. Once he finishes college, he hopes to use his robotics knowledge to create prosthetics. A prosthesis is a human-designed device that used to replace or aid a missing or impaired body part.
Julián is a member of the team that won first place in Robochallenge Mexico’s Sumo Humanoid competition. Sumo Humanoid is based on the Japanese sport of sumo. In these competitions, two robots are placed within a circle. Each of the robots and their human inventors attempt to push the other robot outside of the circle.
First Global Challenge
From July 16-18, students from around the world will come to the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., to compete in the 2017 First Global Challenge.
This year’s First Global Challenge focuses on drinking water.
Competitors are required to design robots that will improve access to clean water. The competition has two parts. First, a team’s robot must remove pollutants from a sample of water and deliver it to a reservoir within a set amount of time. Next, teams will be required to collaborate with other teams to complete a shared task. Students will be judged not only on their tech smarts, but also their ability to cooperate and communicate with others.
One team has been in the news lately. A team from Herat in western Afghanistan has made international news when they were not able to get visas to attend the competition. A visa is an official mark on a traveler’s passport that allows him or her to enter a particular country.
For the Afghan team, applying for visas to travel to the United States was not easy. The all-girls team needed to travel 500 miles to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to apply at the U.S. Embassy. This journey was not safe. Since 2001, Afghanistan has been in a state of political unrest. Since then, about 90,000 people have been killed in fighting while over 100,000 have been injured. Although they made the dangerous journey twice, the U.S. Embassy did not grant them travel visas. This meant that the team would not be able to travel to the First Global Challenge after all.
Although journalists have asked the U.S. State Department why the teams’ visas were not approved, a department spokesperson said that regulations prohibit it from discussing individual visa cases. In addition to the Afghan team, only the team from Gambia has also been denied visas.
“We still don’t know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas,” said one of the Afghan team’s members, 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan. “We did our best and we hope that our robot could get a position along other robots from other countries,”
Luckily, even though the teens won’t be able to attend, their robot will. The team will get to watch their robot compete in Washington D.C. from Afghanistan via the telecommunications app Skype.
Roya Mahboob is one of the sponsors of the Afghan team. She is the founder of Citadel, a software company in Afghanistan. She is that country’s first female technology chief executive. She said that when the girls heard that their visas were denied, “they were crying all the day.”
Still, she thought that the team’s participation, even if it is done remotely, is an important example for women everywhere.
“In Afghanistan, as you know it’s a very man-dominated industry,” she said of that country’s technology industry. “The girls, they’re showing at a young age that they can build something.”
UPDATE: As of July 13, the six-member team is going to be allowed into the United States after backlash against the decision to not grant them visas. Find out more through this Washington Post article.
Read more about Robochallenge México at Mexican News Daily.
Learn more about robotics at NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project.
See an actual robotics competition at National Geographic.
Images and Sources
Student operating robot photo: U.S. Department of Defense
Student operating robot photo license: Public domain
Afghanistan robotics team photo: First Global
Afghanistan robotics team photo license: Public domain