Mechanical marvels test their mettle

An army of hand-built robots showed off their skills yesterday, as the children who created them competed for glory.

ABU DHABI // The striker sidestepped a defender and prepared to shoot. The goalkeeper tried to block it, but there just wasn't enough time. Goal! If the keeper was upset, he wasn't saying. That's because, like all the other players, he is a robot.

The mechanical footballers were all designed and built by close to 400 schoolchildren taking part in yesterday's World Robot Olympiad. All were hoping to win a place among the dozen teams from the UAE who will go to the international finals in November. The children also had to make robots capable of climbing and racing.

The contest, held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, also included an open category judging the machines' abilities to promote tourism or their cultural heritage. Each of the 130 teams was given a package of more than 600 Lego components, Mindstorms software and a tiny NXT computer "brick" to act as the robot's brain. They then had just 150 minutes to build and program the automata. For one category, called "tumbang preso" after a Philippine children's game, the mechanoids had to race to retrieve empty drink cans. In a separate competition, the robots were made to quickly scale a 60cm pole.

This year was the first that the local games included football. Using infrared transmitters and compass sensors, the machines had to target the ball, position themselves alongside it and angle it into the goal, where another robot stood ready to try to block the shot. Abdullah Fawaz al Matar, 16, who had entered the competition for the third year in a row, made robots that could toss a ball and dance to music. The new football category was challenging, he said, but he welcomed it.

"It's a great learning experience because the more I learn, the more I realise that I can make these robots do whatever I want them to do," said Abdullah, who attends Al Mutanabbi Secondary School. For the other categories, judges awarded points for completing tasks and passing through the curves and hurdles of obstacle courses. Awards were also given for machines that were creative, technically advanced and just plain good-looking. The entrants also had a chance to vote for their favourite.

In the culture category, pupils from Shakbout bin Sultan Secondary School in Al Ain made the Shakbout Robot, capable of standing up to greet anyone approaching. When its sensors told it someone was near, the 800g robot would use its 30 gears, five motors and two computerised bricks to extend its hand and lean forward with a small shake of the head to touch noses. "We've assembled him from nothing and hope that he will help us to win," said Bader Khamise, 16, one of its creators. "He represents UAE heritage and our greeting of respect, but he is also the future."

Kerry Bailey, the curriculum consultant for the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) and one of the organisers of the event, said he hoped the competition would eventually evolve beyond Lego equipment and on to original designs using circuit boards and raw materials. "These are specialised robots built with standard equipment that works well and is easily accessible to schools," he said. "This is just the beginning of the journey, a new activity for these kids, and once it's perfected we can open the floor up to more complex machines."

Nichola Aiona, an English adviser for Adec and a judge for the primary-age competition, was impressed with the contestants' creativity and determination.

"Even when they made mistakes, they were eager to correct them and to show me what they could do," she said. It's outstanding when you don't see how something can be possible, like climbing that pole, and then these young kids pull it off."

And the winners are:

Primary competition:
Al Ghaith Primary School, Al Ain

Junior high competition:
Our Own High School, Dubai

Secondary competition:
Our Own High School, Dubai

Open category:
Khalifa bin Zayed Secondary School, Al Ain

Football Gen II:
Al Mutanabbi Secondary School, Abu Dhabi