Funding stymies Israeli teen robot contest champs

Funding stymies Israeli teen robot contest champs

Israeli teens hope to wow with boxing robots at worldwide RoboCup championship -- if they can find the money

Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)
Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)

Eight Israeli 11th and 12th graders will wing their way to Brazil in July to represent Israel in the world finals of the RoboCup robot construction contest. The Israeli contingent will present a pair of robots that box each other, acting and reacting just like live boxers would. According to Yoav Ayalon, a member of Team Israel, this year’s entry is a sure winner.

That is, if the team can raise the money for airfare and accommodations to get to the contest.

RoboCup is the world’s premier contest for next-generation robot building. The contest was first held in 1997, with the main goal of developing by 2050 a robot soccer team capable of beating the human team champion of the FIFA World Cup. Since then, the contest evolved, with entrants in categories such as rescue (robots that can render assistance in the event of fire or accidents) and home (robots to help the elderly or handicapped cope with daily challenges). In 2013, over 40,000 people visited RoboCup over the five days it was held in the Netherlands, where participants from 45 countries presented their robots.

Ayalon and his seven teammates from Yigal Alon High School in Rishon Lezion built a robot to participate in the sports category. Beating out dozens of other projects in the Israeli RoboCup event in May, Ayalon’s robots boxed their way to victory with a realistic rendering of a boxing match. “The robots are not autonomous, and are programmed by humans,” Ayalon told the Times of Israel. “But the action is very real and, once programmed, they run their program automatically without our interceding. Our robots can duck and bob like humans would, so if one of the robots tries to hit the other in the head, the target robot’s controller can move its head out of the way in a very fluid manner.”

The effect is light-years ahead of the Rock’em Sock’em-type boxing robots sold in toy stores, said Ayalon. “We program the moves in advance, and the robots communicate via Bluetooth, so each one ‘knows’ when it is going to get hit. The target then ‘knows’ that it is supposed to move before it gets hit, and does so.” At this point, all the moves are pre-programmed, written in Assembler, with a robot moving when its Bluetooth receiver gets a signal that indicates that its nemesis’s punch is about to connect, “but we hope that the next generation of boxing robots will have the ‘intelligence’ to know that it needs to get out of the way before it gets hit.”

Perhaps the most unique thing about the robots, said Ayalon, is the fact that it is not built of expensive steel, but of leftover plastic pipes, plaster, wheels and other scraps. Besides being a great example of what can be done with Assembler, he said, the robots also provide a great recycling example.

The team was overjoyed when they won the Israeli finals, but their happiness was somewhat tempered when they found out that they would need to pay their own way to Brazil. “We need about $25,000 to fund a trip for all of us, and, unfortunately, the RoboCup Committee can’t help us out.”

The Israel RoboCup National Committee is the group that manages the Israeli RoboCup contests, running the regional and national competitions. According to Prof. Gal A. Kaminka of Bar Ilan University’s Computer Science Department, a member of the committee, “We do not fund any team — it is an issue for the school or the Ministry of Education.” In the past, the committee was able to fund some of its university-level activities, but “we have run out of funding for these activities.” An Education Ministry spokesperson was unable to comment on the issue.

Ayalon and his teammates have been making the rounds of local businesses, looking for sponsors, so far with little luck. “We’d really like to go and show off our work to the rest of the world,” said Ayalon. “Hopefully someone out there will give us the opportunity to do so.”

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