2012 ASABE Robot Contest Photos

2012 ASABE Robot Competition

I was able to attend the 2012 robot competition of the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) recently. When did agricultural engineering students start studying robots? Just as students in any field need to know about computers, it seems robots too are becoming ubiquitous. This year’s contest was designed to encourage students to think about ways robots could solve agricultural problems such as optimizing distribution of feed in cattle lots.

The competition field is intended to represent a scale model of a cattle feed lot containing many cattle pens. Within each pen is a feed container. The robot’s job is to read feed allotments from a flash card provided at the start of the run and distribute the correct amount of feed into each pen’s feed container. Feed is simulated by 6mm Airsoft pellets. Judges score the robots based on both speed and accuracy. The weight of each feed container is measured after a run. Robots lost points if they collided with fences or walls, or if the they required hands-on assistance from a human during a run.

The feed pellets complicated the competition in a way I’ve not seen in other types of events. If a robot missed a feed container and dumped a load of feed pellets onto the playing field, it created a constantly changing area of small obstacles that the robot had to move through.

I was impressed by the range of feed dispensing mechanisms the contestants came up with, ranging from elegant and simple to over-engineered Rube Goldberg contraptions. You can see more photos of the event in my flickr set: ASABE Student Robotics Contest 2012. I also wrote a bit more about the event in the October 2012 issue of SERVO Magazine.

2012 VEX Robotics World Championship

2012 VEX World Championship

VEX hired me to photograph The 2012 VEX Robotics World Championship and I’ve returned with hundreds of photos. This year’s championship was held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA. Last year, VEX cohosted several other events including BEST competitions, a Coast Guard robot contest, and a Boy Scount merit badge event. This year it was all VEX, all the time. The special guests were Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Douglas D. Osheroff, Dave Lavery of NASA, and Miral Kotb’s dance troupe, iLuminate. Read on for more photos and coverage of the event.

The opening ceremonies included the announcement of a new VEX Hall of Fame and some initial inductees were brought out on stage. There was also the usual parade of teams from all over the world. This year’s championship included over 10,000 participants. 600 teams from 20 countries qualified for the finals. That’s nearly 100 more teams than last year’s championship. The Anaheim Convention Center proved large enough to handle the crowds without the need for the additional temporary buildings used at the 2011 championship. Expect to see the 2013 VEX Championship held here again.

The entertainment during finals was provided by iLuminate, a dance troupe founded by Miral Kotb. The group performs in complete darkness wearing suits covered in EL Wire and LEDs. You may have seen them perform on the reality television show America’s Got Talent. This was also the year of pyrotechnics. The VEX Dome was constantly exploding in sparks, flames, and smoke. Almost any time someone walked on stage or won a match there were explosions. And there were so many stage hands moving portable pyro kits around, it was hard to get photographs of the action without backing into a fire zone.

As always, there were plenty of awards to spread around. Despite attending several VEX Championships, I have to admit that I still only have a vague grasp of how all the alliances and awards work, so I won’t even attempt to describe who won. If you’d like to see the full breakdown of who won which awards, check out the official VEX news release. It includes a list of winners and more details about the event.

A few other observations: the last two years, mohawks and blue hair were all the rage but this year it was all about hats; big hats, strange hats, and multiple hats. Mascots continue to turn up here and there, several were actually robots. Once again there were more all-girl teams than the previous year and there were more girls on all teams. It almost unusual to see an all boy team these days. It’s really nice to see this kind of change happening in just the few years I’ve been going to the VEX Championships.

For more, see my Flickr photo gallery of the 2012 VEX Robotics World Championship covering every aspect of the event. There’s also a smaller gallery of Miral Kotb and iLuminate’s performance at the VEX Championship. The Robot Events site also has a video summary of the championship.

2011 VEX Robotics World Championship

Kari Byron congratulates a winning team

I was invited out to Orlando, FL to photograph the 2011 VEX Robotics World Championship last week. It was bigger and busier than ever this year. There were lots of things going on besides just VEX matches this year including BEST, Boy Scout, and Coast Guard robot events. It’s also turning into a good networking event. I ran into old friends, met friends I’d previously known only online, and even made some new friends. If you want to go straight to the photos (600+), head over to my Flickr 2011 VEX Robotics World Championship gallery.

Every year, the VEX Robotics World Championship gets bigger. This year it topped 500 teams, and more than 10,000 total participants, from around the world. For 2011, the event moved to the Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando, FL from its previous location in Dallas, TX. The smaller venue resulted in the VEX event being spread out across multiple buildings as well a large temporary structure. Vendors were scattered around in small tents outdoors and some events were held on the baseball field. The downside to this was a lot more walking and decreased probability of seeing the random cool things that teams spontaneously do like parading around, playing instruments and dancing. But the upside (at least for the younger crowd) was the proximity to all the Disney theme parks.

I only saw one alligator during my four days in Florida but every evening as I walked back to my hotel room, I saw dozens of green anoles scurrying out my way. They were apparently attracted to the warm sidewalks after sunset.

This year’s VEX challenge was called Round Up and involved the usual tasks of moving red or blue objects around on a square field. You can check out the Round Up challenge description if you’re curious about the details. As always, the teams of all age groups came up with ingenious robot designs to tackle the problem. There were a lot more university teams this year than last year in addition to the many High School and Middle School teams. There were also more all girl teams again this year. If VEX is any indication, expect to see more female engineers in the future.

In addition to their own matches, VEX hosted other events including the BEST championship and the US Coast Guard Academy’s AROW water robotics competition. The Boy Scouts of America also showed up with lots of scouts, robots, and scouting officials so we could watch the first scouts ever finish the requirements for the recently announced robotics merit badge. There were other distractions including a DJ, random Disney characters, live music, dancing, and occasional pyrotechnics.

The BEST teams continue to be the most enthusiastic robot builders I’ve seen. Anytime someone mentions the B-word, the response from all the BEST teams is deafening, even though I’m pretty sure all that noise is coming from a much smaller number of people than the VEX group. Somebody needs to figure out what BEST is doing in the cheer training department – it’s definitely working.

Artist Kari Byron of MythBusters and Head Rush hosted the event. Last year, MythBuster’s Grant Imahara hosted but I think Kari may have him beat on popularity with the kids. What better role model for aspiring female engineers than Kari? And teenage boys seem to really like her too for some reason. In addition to her duties as MC, Kari put in endless hours posing for millions of photos with robot builders (and robots) as well as signing autographs.

VEX Competitions have many awards, lots of complicated “alliances” between multiple teams, and several different divisions, so I won’t even attempt to tell you who won what. If you’re curious about that sort of thing check out the 2011 VEX Robotics World Championship Awards & Results list. You can read the official VEX news release or check out the more detailed press kit with photos and video.

And, of course, I shot photos while I was there. Lots and lots of photos. More photos than you could possible want to look at. You’ll find them over in my 2011 VEX World Championship photo gallery (Update: by popular demand, here’s a link to just the Kari Byron photos).

2009 VEX Robotics World Championship


It all started when Tom Atwood of Robot Magazine asked me to attend the VEX Robotics World Championship to shoot photos of the more than 270 teams from around the world competing in the event. Before I even knew what happened, I found myself enlisted as one of the judges for the event. Judging the small contests held by local robot groups can be a lot of work but it pales in comparison to the efforts needed for something like the VEX championship. Read on for the full story.


The judging panel itself varied between 10 and 15 indivduals over the
course of the three day event. In addition to the judges, there were
dozens of others acting as referees, score keepers, and doing data entry
to feed information to the judges. At any given moment there were
usually 16 or more teams involved in at least four matches. The scores
only form part of the input for the judging. Several of the judges spent
their entire days in private meetings with each team to evaluate their
engineering notebooks and robots. Other judges, including myself, spent
their days wandering through the pit area, talking to members of each
team, asking questions about their robot, team structure, engineering
approach, and other questions.

By the time a team was recommend for an award, they had often been interviewed by multiple groups of judges several times. Even so, I had my doubts going in that this subjective approach could really pick the best candidates. My doubts were dispelled as the scores from the matches began rolling and we frequently saw the same teams who stood out in the subject analysis of the pit judges climbing in the competition scores as well. What this meant to me is that the teams with good communications, well defined engineering strategies, and good ideas also tended to build winning robots.

But enough about the judging, what was the VEX Championship like? Blue hair and pirate costumes seemed to be the most popular fashions among teams. But there were also plenty of mohawks, fauxhawks, and colorful regional garb from around the world. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many girls on the teams. Engineering and robotics is no longer a male-only field.


Each match consists of four teams playing in pairs. Two blue teams work together against two red teams. The robot must acquire red or blue foam blocks and deposit them in one of three types of containers to gain points. Unlike many high-school level events, the VEX contest is not just another remote-control vehicle contest. While the majority of each match is spent with the robots in teleoperated mode, the contest emphasizes autonomy as a goal of building robots. The robots must operate autonomously for a portion of time at the beginning each match. Robots that are capable of scoring autonomously give the teams a much better chance of winning. There is also a college level contest in which only autonomous action is allowed but the vast majority of time is spent with the middle and high school level matches.


The first day of the event is spent in practice and preparation. Each team must have their robot inspected by officials to verify that it meets the rules. Teams then spend most of their time running the robots on the test fields in test matches as they fine tune the operation and work out bugs. The next two days are spent in elimination matches and eventually playoffs to find the winners. There are also various breaks in the matches to present awards.


If you like to see more of the event, don’t worry, I shot more photos that you could possibly ever want and posted about half of them on flickr, so go ahead and have a look at the VEX Robotics World Championship photo gallery.

Thunderstorms and Robots

There’s a good size thunderstorm going on outside right now. From the look of the radar images it’ll probably be raining for most of the night. I’ve been working on a new Perl program (GPL’ed of course!) which I’ve decided to call “Event Horizon”. Its purpose is to generate an ASCII and HTML format event calendar. I’m going to use it specifically to help bring the Robot Competition List up to date again. I’ve neglected the list for over a year because it’s so time consuming to update. I expect to have the first new version out around the beginning of June.