Around mid-February, the commotion erupting from Maples Collegiate’s Industrial Arts workshop was drawing quite a crowd.
Inside, students cheered, booed, howled, and taunted each other. There were, as instructor Graeme Crawford tells it, probably a few fingernails chewed down that day.
At the centre of the ruckus? A pair of softball-sized robots ramming the holy heck out of each other.
On Feb. 15, the school held its second annual Sumo Bot Battle competition, a chance for students in Maples Collegiate’s electronics department to flex some mechanical muscle by putting their homemade robotic warriors into battle.
"We’re only in our second year, and we’re slowly growing it," Crawford explains.
"I saw a lot of interest with the kids."
The robotics program is just one part of a larger program which sees students doing everything from creating 3D woodprints with CNC machines to building printed circuit boards and residential wiring.
As for the sumo bots, it all starts out with a kit and a tutorial book.
"They build the robots from scratch and when they build the robot,we then start to program it," Crawford said.
"There are different servos. There are motors and sensors, and you have to program different things . . . ‘make it go straight’ ‘make it turn’ ‘make it do a circle’ — all those things."
Then comes the biggest part of the program: Teaching the robots to fight each other.
Once they’re fully assembled and programmed, they look somewhat like little bulldozers. A mat is placed on the ground with a wide white circle in it, and the robots — which have sensors on their undersides meant to keep them from crossing the line accidentally — are put inside.
After that, it’s pretty straightforward. Two robots enter. One robot leaves.
This year, the round-robin style tournament was won by the trio of Kenneth Zhong, Hardeep Dhillon and Mathew Dunning and their robot Roger while Shauldon Santos’ Akali won the Royal Rumble which, like its pro-wrestling namesake, amounts to tossing all the bots in the ring at once and seeing who emerges victorious.
The four students say the competition gets heated. Aside from the storm of noise that erupted during the competition, the competitors were all keeping a close eye on each other.
"It got pretty crazy," Santos said.
"Some of us were going onto each other’s computers like ‘what are the other guys doing?’"
The throng of students who came to the workshop to check out the competition was gravy to the students, who got to show off their work.
"It took three weeks to a month to get the point where they were competing," Crawford said.
"It’s more people enjoying the fruits of their labour."
The contest brings to mind other robot-fighting competitions, such as Battlebots.
Plans are already in the works to get students designing remote-controlled robots, which will give them a greater degree of control compared to the totally automated sumo bots.
"Right now I’m teaching them again. We’re getting into something called ‘Pick programming’ next," Crawford said.
"It’s even more advanced."
As computer programming and robotics technology become a greater and greater part of the industrial landscape, Crawford said that what the students are learning encompasses several skill sets, from programming and problem solving to hands-on construction.
"They can go to college and have a huge advantage," Crawford said.