Fighting Robots Conquer OCAD

That's the first place I'd go if I was a killer robot hell-bent on destruction.

The Rosalie Sharp Pavillion loomed over the Ontario College of Art and Design like some menacing mechanical creature from the nightmares of a child as robot enthusiasts milled about the Auditorium of the main building, waiting for the promised carnage to begin.

Last Sunday saw the annual Sumo Robot Challenge, sponsored by OCAD and the Ontario Science Centre. What was once a demonstration of the new advances in engineering and robotics (now made redundant by the autonomous flying drones built by the US Army), is now a simple competition between fighting robots and their creators. These clockwork monsters come to blows on one of two 6-foot circular platforms.

Sumo Classic robots are 1' cubed and generally rely on brute force to push their opponents off the platform. In the Sumo Clever category a metal pole is placed in the centre of the platform, forcing the robots to navigate around it in order to engage their adversary. Sumo Lightweight is generally considered the beginners group and features robots under 10lbs.

By 1pm the auditorium had filled with curious art students, enthusiastic adults, and children, lots of children! Some as young as 2 years old! Did their parents have any idea what they'd brought them to?

Two six foot circular platforms sat silently in the middle of the auditorium, surrounded by yellow caution tape with chairs set up beyond that. The judge's table stood at the back wall with a large video projection above it. A simple looking cabinet was situated in between the two platforms. It was a sort of diorama; A small, delicate looking, but boxy, humanoid robot was lying face down in a puddle of water on the floor of the cabinet and was projected onto the wall.

The Announcer for the afternoon, dressed in a black tuxedo and calling the play by play Las Vegas style, welcomed us to the 2005 Sumo Robot Challenge and introduced Philip Eddolls, with his piece, "Ascension of a Dead Robot". The lights dimmed so we could see the video projection.

A warm yellow beam fell upon the dead robot and Operatic music filled the air. The robot began to stir and gently rolled over onto its side. The music rose in pitch and urgency, and the robot rose with it, slowly rising out of the puddle, floating now, floating up into the air, turning slowly like some feverish patient writhing in bed. The music swelled to a monumental climax and the robot continued to climb, lightniing flashing from above him, sadness implied by his blank expression. Into the air he went until finally disappearing into the top of the cabinet as the music concluded and the lights went out.

After that moment of beauty and art the macho robots came out to beat the crap out of each other.

I'd never been to the sumo robot challenge before, but I read on the website that saw blades and that sort of thing had been banned from the competition. I thought this new restriction would make things less exciting, with less carnage and whatnot, but I was gravely mistaken.

At the start of each round Rob, the strongman, the man who can lift one person over his head with one hand, the man with the mile-long beard, the man whose love of wrestling knows no holds, would parade himself around the danger zone with a sign indicating the Round number. During dead moments while technicians tinkered with their creations and the music is loud Rob would dance on the spot, wearing his one piece hercules spandex and a pair of heavy workboots. The little boys sitting on the floor in the front row thought he was a wrestler. Every time we went by them with the round number they would stand up and cheer, he'd high-five each of them and roar. I myself thought he might attempt to wrestle one of the larger robots, but alas, the man vs. machine battle for Earth I'd hoped for would have to wait until next year.

Despite Rob's showboating, and the enormous failure of Mount Everest (a robot literally too big for this competition), the star of the afternoon was the Sumo Classic contender Baby Hulk and its teen girl controller. Baby Hulk was a green box driven by concealed wheels and controlled via wireless remote. High tech stuff. It could push around any of the competing robots and did so match after match, but in cases of dire need there was a secret weapon. The front and top panels of the little green cube were supported by concealed pistons which, once the small lip on the bottom edge of the front panel was in place, could lift an adversary, reducing its traction, then push it off the platform with greater ease. Several of the other robots had a similar sort of weapon, but none seemed to have the same strength. Or perhaps they just lacked the strategic insight of Baby Hulk's pilot.

Baby Hulk's only real competition seemed to sneak into the finals. Peacemaker, a similarly designed box with a kicker in the front, easily whipped a clumsy robot elephant off the platform, then clobbered whatever else got in its way with little fanfare or excitement. Baby Hulk had fought 6 to 8 rounds in a row against blood-thirsty robots in order to get to the final match against Peacemaker, and as her machine was announced as one of the next contenders the poor little girl in the green t-shirt rolled her neck in exasperation and shrugged her shoulders as doom breathed down her neck once again.

Peacemaker didn't seem worried. Its pilot was a cocky looking late-twenties computer programmer type who seemed to be taking things very seriously. In the first round the two flat boxes slammed into each other and pushed their faces together without consequence for several moments until Baby Hulk, in an attempt to regroup, backed off for a moment. Peacemaker, however, didn't hesitate for a second, lunged towards Baby Hulk's undefended right side and pushed it off the platform.

Round Two began in much the same way except that Baby Hulk was able to dodge Peacemaker's advances and eked around the side. The two machines got caught in eachother's flippers and fell off the platform together! The crowd gasps in despair! Is Baby Hulk out?! NO! The judges give that round to Baby Hulk. It's 1 - 1.

In Round Three Peacemaker rushes Baby Hulk and manages to flip it onto its backside. Baby Hulk, still mobile due to clever design, loses control and rolls itself off the edge of the platform! Oh no!! It's heartbreaking and the crowd can hardly believe it. Peacemaker's pilot wastes no time celebrating. He pumps his fists into the air and dances around like he's hit a grand slam at the World Series. The little girl looks disappointed and sad, but somehow relieved that its all over.

I could barely contain myself. As someone who never, EVER, watches any sporting events, it was thrilling to find myself jumping up and down, yelling and groaning with the crowd as robots crashed into each other, rolled themselves off the edge, stalled, fell over, lost and won. It was thrilling beyond any of my expectations. There were so many amazing elements to this event that I could easily write two or three thousand words, each paragraph an ecstatic, hooting and hollaring testimony to the incredible drama that is the Sumo Robot Challenge.

Please forgive the lateness of this post. It's been very tricky for me to edit it down to this small, digestable cookie. What you missed was the incredible dance between the silver wedge called Pretty in Pink and the chunky deathbot Black Bar, in which PiP slipped beneath its opponent and carried it over the edge, and the fast paced action of the lightweight contenders.

According to The Ontario Science Centre is hosting a second Sumo Robot competition on Saturday, March 26th, but I haven't been able to find any other documentation to support that. So you might want to call first 416-696-1000

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