Robots and Systems
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24 June 1992

                      REPORT ON
               27th TO 28th SEPTEMBER 1990

                    REPORT COMPILED BY
                     THE SHADOW GROUP

                        29 JAN 1991



             1st International Robot Olympics
The 1st International Robot Olympics was held on 27th to 28th
September 1990 at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The 
Event was conceived by Dr Mowforth of the Turing Institute, 
Glasgow as a British 'Robotics Weekend' on the lines of a weekend 
event held the previous year at the Artificial Intelligence 
Laboratory of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However 
perhaps because Glasgow was City of Culture 1990 the scale of the 
event changed and it grew to a major international meeting.

Impression of Olympics 
At first sight the Olympics seemed to be a large well attended 
international event and judging by the intense media coverage one 
at which startling advances in robotics were going to be 

However a French t.v. journalist confided that he had asked 
around among the other reporters and they all agreed that they 
were somewhat disappointed at the level of technology. (He 
thought the Shadow walker was the most interesting  looking 
entry.) He was also disappointed that there were no French 
entries.  Nevertheless this view can not have been the only one 
since  Philipe Dufay reporting on the Olympics in the Figaro 
colour magazine remarks; "It is high time to finish drilling the 
Channel Tunnel: our neighbours  have now too many secrets..."

As was to be expected the level of technology varied with the 
level of funding, but irrespective of cost, most designs were 
first used over ten years ago. The University entries had 
obviously had considerable funds expended to produce 
nicely-finished engineering presentations. With few exceptions, 
however, the level of performance did not match their appearance. 
The entries from amateurs and schools were, on the whole, 
developed with minimal expense, some deliberately, others from 
necessity. Their engineering tended to be more  primitive, but 
showed several neat methods of solving design problems. 

Most entries suffered from being moved to Glasgow, and  perhaps 
more effort should have been applied to improving reliability. 
(Perhaps an additional day should have been allowed for setting 
up, free from Press involvement.)

The event was held (as might be expected) in a sports hall but it 
was  well disguised with the traditional exhibition carpet and 
equipped with numerous tables and chairs. The carpet later proved 
to be exceedingly troublesome to most of the robots; the small 
ones got stuck in the pile, larger ones navigating by 
ded-reckoning can only have been confused by the pile induced 
drift (much as a rug on a carpet seems to have a mind of its own 
migrating purposely in some inconvenient direction) and the 
largest wheeled machines appeared to have been designed to run on 
nothing less than reinforced concrete. Virtually every robot at 
the Olympics required electricity, for itself and/or its 
controlling computer, money spent on the carpet could well have 
been put to better use in providing an adequate electricity 
supply. Sports halls are not noted for this need and many 
competitors seemed to have difficulty with the number of sockets 
provided and a few complained of computer malfunction attributed 
to an unreliable supply.

Little prior thought seemed to have been given to the actual 
competition events themselves. In traditional athletics the first 
past the post is invariably the winner but with today's robots of 
limited versatility the outcome is not quite so clear cut 
especially when competitors did not know what was to be tested 
until after they arrived! This lack of adaptability ought to have 
been foreseen and had some bearing on the events and on the 
selection of judges for the events. 

It was interesting to compare the differing attitudes of the 
teams. Half, in charge of robots which didn't look so much 
designed as assembled in the University workshop from parts 
chosen at random from a machinery catalogue  were apparently 
bored to death by the whole affair. Whilst the others in charge 
of machines, working or not, which they had either built 
themselves or been closely involved in the building of (for 
example Paul Channon of Cardiff) were enthusiastically 
demonstrating, discussing or repairing them. This latter half 
were definitely involved in the sharper end of the technology. 

Suitability of Events
The competitions were really too difficult for real robots, and 
conditions did not adequately take account of their limitations. 
Although providing some comic relief, they did not serve the real 
purpose of pushing development forward. For example, in the 
walking race there was no handicapping for size, which left a 
four foot high machine having to 'run' as far as a machine one 
foot high.

Salient Technology

The one major robot from Britain that was demonstrated reliably 
was the biped walker from the University of Wales College of 
Cardiff which tottered backwards and forward on command but 
didn't seem to be able to turn corners. Despite the fact that 
getting the machine to walk at all was a major achievement the 
robot should be viewed against the global background. The machine 
performs about as well as the Biper range of walking robots from 
the University of Tokyo Japan. The Biper range was started about 
10 years ago and each machine probably cost about one hundredth 
that of the Cardiff machine.

The Shadow Group biped walker while being low cost is using a 
form of air powered muscles which Professor Kato of Washida 
University Japan has been unable to make work successfully. 
However the walker although complete has yet to be demonstrated 
under control.

MIT were represented by two small hexapod walkers one working the 
other not yet finished. These really were state of the art 
machines. The subsumption software on the former allowed 
incredibly fluid walking even over some telephone directories! 
The latter had eight microcontrollers on board, one to each leg 
with one co-ordinating those six, while the eighth was used for 
picture analysis from an onboard miniature (one half inch cube) 
t.v. camera and range finder.

Arthur Collie From Portsmouth Polytechnic along with a team from 
Russia were demonstrating wall climbing robots. The Russian 
machines were very primitive and seemed not to draw on knowledge 
of previous wall climbers over the last twenty years. Arthur 
Collie's machines on the other hand were novel robust and worked 
well, the largest using  suction pads on the end of its legs was 
able to step over small irregularities on its way up the wall. 
Its robustness was inadvertent demonstrated when after falling 
about ten feet to the floor due to someone turning off its supply 
it was immediately without any repairs being necessary put back 
to climbing the wall.

Other walking machines can be ignored as either not working or 
based on ancient designs, e.g.. Penelope an eight legged machine 
from the University of Edinburgh was an implementation of a 
design from the late sixties.

Wheeled locomotion:-

Once again these robots demonstrated the old adage that one has 
got to learn how to walk before one can run. Most robots seem to 
last only one or two years before being discarded. With that 
approach everybody has to learn everything for themselves 
starting from scratch and nowadays that really does mean from 
scratch without the benefit of childhood experience obtained 
through experimental construction using for example Meccano or 
Balsawood. The Japanese entry Yamabico won the overall prize for 
the best robot, it is now about ten or twelve years old and was 
refined over the first half of its life until now it can be taken 
out of its cupboard, dusted of and demonstrated with reasonable 
surety of success.

Two of the nicest mobiles were commercial items from Real World 
Interfaces in the USA, they have been available for about the 
last five years, unfortunately the people from the University of 
Salford seemed to be using them as radio controlled toys. Tagg's 
early mobiles built round Atari ST computers have in the past 
bumbled around but at the Olympics for some reason were strangely 

Dr Goodhead of Warwick University was demonstrating a fast highly 
manoeuvrable omni-directional robot base with a novel drive 
arrangement using inclined wheels to overcome power steer, but it 
was one of those that kept trying to tear-up the carpet. However  
in all fairness it is being developed for factories and 

The much vaunted Trolleyman from the NEL was not working (despite 
the fake t.v. shots on Tomorrows World) and was hidden away in a 

In front of the Shadow Group stand a machine called Jon's Jalopy 
which looked like it had been designed by the proverbial Roland 
Emmett actually hid a video camera and range finder linked by an 
umbilical to an Acorn Archimedes computer which was using the 
video picture information to guide the vehicle to a 
pre-designated object.

Several smaller robots were about (many on the Shadow Group 
stand). Most of them were very rudimentary autonomous vehicles 
with perhaps only one or two sensors. Dave Bisset, from the 
University of Kent, put in two small buggies which won a silver 
and a gold medal. One vehicle Icarus built to a 1963 design by D 
Buckley contained as its brain only a photocell a transistor and 
a relay yet won a Silver medal! Most of them would have been 
state of the art 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago. Yet they 
should not be dismissed; some of them embody Neural Net type 
control architectures which is again, after being out of favour 
for too long, showing promise of giving robustness to control 
strategies for mobile robots.

However Yamabico aside non of these machines are anywhere near 
being a self contained autonomous robot which knows where it has 
been and to where it is going.

Special purpose machines:-

A great deal of effort had been expended in machining large 
pieces of aluminium to construct massive inverted single and 
double pendulums with the object of learning how to balance them 
under computer control. These pieces were not seen working! 
Pendulums are not at the edge of technological knowledge and 
these projects should only be seen as interesting if expensive 
student projects. 

Dr Todd of Edinburgh University had a large wheeled robot which 
was designed to open a special test door which once the problems 
caused by transport were sorted out it did. The handle had though 
to be in exactly the right place.
Three things were very evident from the Games. Britain is not at 
the sharp end of robot technology, enthusiasm from a mere handful 
of researchers is not enough: there just is not sufficient 
backing both for resources and the time necessary to build state 
of the art machines: and certainly in Britain's universities 
there is not the necessary intellectual infrastructure and 
knowledge base. 

It is important to realise that despite the tones to the contrary 
from one or two prominent researchers in the field Britain has a 
lot of catching up to do. On the whole British universities are 
about ten years behind the wavefront and this is not going to be 
changed overnight.

Fortunately there does seem to be a growing awareness amongst our 
researchers that it is not possible to build advanced research 
robots 'on paper', and that actual working hardware is vital for 
understanding of the problems involved. This awareness must be 

                             SHADOW GROUP Robot Olympics Report