Robot racing sparks scientific enthusiasm in U.S. students

Tue Mar 24, 2015 8:22am EDT
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By Scott Malone

WORCESTER, Mass. (Reuters) - A hefty robot designed for search-and-rescue and a spindly four-legged rival that bounds along on hydraulic limbs will face off next month along with more than a dozen other entrants in the debut Vecna Robot Sprint Challenge outside Boston.

The robots, designed by student teams at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, will be racing a lineup ranging from commercial available machines weighing hundreds of pounds to remote control cars jerry-rigged by teenage hobbyists.

The 100-meter out-and-back course, where the robots will accept a cup full of confetti at the turnaround, has no ambitions of attracting competitors on par with those in the U.S. Defense Department-funded Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge, where some of the world's top minds in the field will show off creations that cost tens of millions of dollars.

Rather, the competition sponsored by robotics company Vecna Technologies is part of a growing breed of lower-key robot races sprouting up across the United States that experts contend could play a powerful role in attracting young students into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"It's a fantastic trend; I'm all for it," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor Russ Tedrake, who helped lead the school's fourth-place DARPA team in 2014.

Races like Vecna's, which he is not involved in organizing, they seem to be drawing people in to the field, he added.

Competitions also help spin off new ideas that can grow into practical inventions, experts said. The fleet of self-driving cars that Google Inc has been testing relies on ideas generated at an earlier DARPA race, for instance.


Undergraduate seniors in Prof. Marko Popovic's lab describe their quadruped robot "Hydro Dog" at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter