The nuts and bolts of sumo robotics

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By Stephen Huebl

The gym hummed with the sound of motors revving and the smell of burning rubber permeated the air.  Fans waited anxiously for their heroine to arrive.  Cassandra took the sumo robotic world by storm last year when she won the Sumo Classic title at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD).  But on Saturday, in the gym in the basement of Kerr Hall, the 120-pound dynamo, made of wood, a battery and a little duct tape, felt the weight of the world on her shoulders as she prepared to fight for the first time on her home turf.  In the eyes of the bookmakers, it was a match she could not lose. 

With minutes to go before the start of the match, Cassandra’s handlers, Adrian Rizzuto and Mike Andreou, both in the electrical engineering program, scrambled to find an opponent for the robot after all the competitors in her “heavyweight, no holds-barred” class bowed out.  Legendary promoter Norm White stepped up to the challenge with his robot, Goody 4 Shoes, an 80-pound bulldozer that, like all the other combatants, was no taller than a milk crate.

White, an instructor at OCAD, organized one of the first sumo robotic competitions in Toronto in 1992 at the design school.  Since then, there have been nine sumo robotic tournaments at the design college, the most recent being in March.

Jeff Dickson, a fourth-year electrical engineering student who has been a part of Ryerson’s sumo robotics club since it started in 1997, helped bring the tournament to campus for the first time this year.  The event, which was open to all, involved three classes, the Sumo Classic, the Sumo Clever, and the Sumo Lightweight.  It resembled the traditional Japanese wrestling competition, though the combatants were remote-controlled robotics machines, not 300-pound plus thong-clad men.

The rules are simple:  judges can ban any machine they feel may injure spectators, machines using corrosive chemicals, rockets, explosives or an open flame won’t be allowed to compete, and teams must divulge to judges “all aggressive features used by their robot.”  To win, a robot must knock its opponent out of the ring — a 1.8 metre wide piece of plywood cut in the shape of a circle that stands about 13 centimetres off the ground — two times.

Saturday’s fight in Kerr Hall’s lower gym between Cassandra and Goody kept the spectators on their toes for most of the match.  The robots were locked in a standoff that proved too much for Goody, who began to lose power.  Cassandra, named after the daughter of her creator, Ryerson computer science professor Alex Ferworn, quickly sensed that her opponent was weakening and manoeuvred herself into position for the kill.  Goody tried to fight back, releasing quick spurts of power on Cassandra.  But the Ryerson champ dug in her wheels, knocking Goody out of the ring as a small cloud of smoke billowed into the air.  Goody barely showed up in the next round, giving Cassandra the two wins needed to take the match and the title, much to the delight of the home crowd.

After the championship, some fans speculated Cassandra’s victory could help ensure the sumo robotic tournament becomes a regular competition at the school.  “I’d like to see it become an annual event because it’s fun,” Dickson said.  “Instead of procrastinating and watching TV, you can procrastinate and build a robot.”

While Cassandra had a rather easy go at it in the Sumo Classic, the other two classes were more hotly contested.  Here are some highlights.

Cassandra’s creator, Alex Ferworn, entered the Sumo Lightweight class with a fuzzy, cow-spotted box-on-wheels named Charlotte the Attack Cow.  In its match against Double Trouble, handled by the father and son team of Graham Smith and 10-year-old Nik Teventarny of Toronto, Charlotte pulled a quick one on Double Trouble, squirting a light red liquid at her opponent.  But Charlotte’s aim was lacking, as most of the liquid ended up on young Nik.  Smith didn’t know what the liquid was, but said “we just hope it’s not acid.”  All Ferworn would say was, “Ah, it’s a secret ingredient.”  This “secret ingredient,” however, wasn’t enough to give Ferworn the win over Double Trouble, which went on to lose in the final to Tie Die Terror, built by two high-school students.

The first match of the Sumo Clever class saw Goody 4 Shoes up against Blade Runner, although Goody really didn’t have much to do in this fight.  Blade Runner resembled a jet on wheels with two spikes sticking out of its nose.  The robot, however, proved too powerful for its controller, Ilya Polyakov of Buffalo, who failed to change its specs for Ryerson’s smaller ring.  (In its last competition, Blade competed in a ring about seven times the size of Ryerson’s.)  Every time Polyakov tried to make it move it seemed to have a mid of its own and started spinning around violently.  Blade Runner eventually flung itself off the raised ring, prompting the crowd to scurry back.  To some it appeared the move was in direct violation of one of the competition’s rules: “The judges may bar from the contest any machines which they feel pose a real threat or injury to spectators, or damage the contest site.”

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