Robot Wars – prime time engineering education

I feel certain that I cannot be the only reader of The Engineer who watches “Robot Wars.” In fact I would wager that someone reading this article has actually entered, what with it being a competition that has been around for some time now.

robot-wars
Image credit: BBC

The latest series, returned to Auntie’s second channel after having a sojourn with one of the commercial set ups, has just finished. In case you are oblivious to it all, this is a competition where robots built within certain parameters set upon each other within an arena.

It may not be subtle but through all of these mechanisms it is still education about engineering by stealth

Battling through a series of heats it essentially ends with “the last robot standing (well, moving) wins.” If you have not seen the programme then I can recommend it, it’s all terribly exciting stuff.

Although one could possibly dismiss it as “bash and crash” frippery, there is in fact an admirable amount of information disseminated about the robots and technical aspects of their construction. Members of the expert judging panel are also regularly wheeled out in front of the camera to discuss a particular field of robotics or the future of the science as they see it.

The robots in themselves vary from “hopelessly optimistic”, through “rather clever” to “B***** Hell – that’s impressive!” So make no mistake, it may not be subtle but through all of these mechanisms it is still education about engineering by stealth.

As you would expect, a number of the entrants have been designed and built by engineers. Not only experienced old boys with a fully fitted out workshop in their shed but also young guns out to prove themselves in the public arena. Alongside them though, there are constructors without any engineering background at all.

For me there were two of these latter teams who were particularly notable this year, one a builder who created the robot on his own and the other a gaggle of holiday camp entertainers. Both teams produced robots that were effective engineered solutions to the design brief, as well as sporting a very high level of finish.

Assuming that by the time this article is published anyone with the least interest will know the result of the final (if you don’t know and have it sat on the hard drive ready to watch, probably best not to read on any further) I feel safe in giving my views on it.

Professional loyalty had me hoping that the Carbide team, led by an engineer, would win. Well, that and the dramatic destruction invariably wrought by its heavy, spinning blade. A little part of me however was rooting for Apollo, the robot built by the entertainers. It never excited me as a fighting robot but they had taken on the House Robots (professionally built, bigger devices controlled by the production team) during the heats and this was so far removed from their area of expertise that you could not help but admire what they had achieved.

Many a career within engineering could find its start in a shed by helping to build a dodgy looking robot.

Incredibly Apollo won, and deservedly lifted the trophy. Personally I think ripples from this may spread wide. It is my hope that this victory not only inspires more non-engineers to start building in their garden sheds but also encourages those who might be scared by the academic side of our profession to give it a go.

Engineering as an industry has many levels and a requirement for a broad spread of abilities. Designers of nuclear power-plants, fabricators of bicycle frames and so on – many a career within engineering could find its start in a shed by helping to build a dodgy looking robot.