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.

Retro-Photography Update

I posted a while back about my experiences repairing and using a Bencini Comet S 127 film camera. Since then I’ve acquired a few more interesting old cameras. One is an Argus C, an American 35mm camera made in 1938. I bought it at an estate sale for $10. The Argus C series cameras were also know as “bricks” because they have the same form factor, aesthetics, (and seemingly the same weight) as a brick. The Argus was in very bad shape and required a lot of work to get it operational. I shot a roll of film and got some interesting results despite a chronic focus error.

The next camera I got my hands on was a German Bilora Bella 3b, made between 1955 and 1957. I got the Bella on eBay for $8. It was in remarkably good condition, requiring only some minor repairs to the case to solve a light leak problem. The first roll of film produced some interesting photos but also revealed a strange optical artifact, possibly produced by light reflection in the lens.

So far the most interesting images were produced by the Bencini Comet S and I’ve continued to shoot with it. I’m still looking for old film cameras at estate sales and will post more results to my flickr photostream as I can.

Adventures in Retro Photography

Susan and I frequent estate sales these days. For my part, I’m usually looking for interesting metal objects and potential robot parts. Occasionally, I see something I’m not looking for that’s weird or interesting enough that I have to buy it. That was the case recently when I spotted a Bencini Comet S 127 film camera. I’d never heard of Bencini and the camera was in pretty bad shape but, hey, for $2, why not?

An initial inspection revealed a spare film takeup reel inside. The camera still included a metal screw-on lens cap. The shutter appeared to work. On the downside, the focus ring wouldn’t turn, the lens and viewfinder had years worth of dirt on them, and the black leathery covering had partially peeled off the front of the camera.

A little Googling turned up quite a bit of information on the camera from Camerapedia, the Vintage Camera Museum and other sites. The Comet is a 127 film camera made by CMF Bencini in Milano, Italy in 1950. The Comet is a half-frame camera, meaning it takes 16 portrait aspect ratio photos on an 8 exposure roll of 127 film instead of the usual 8 square images.

I took the camera to the weekly DPRG meeting. That might seem odd, but we do a lot more than build robots. Basically anything geeky is on topic there. Another DPRG member, Ed Paradis, helped me disassemble and examine the camera. The focus ring problem was due to solidified lubricant. With careful application of solvent we were able to remove the old lubricant. Then we added some new, non-oil-based lubricant. The focus ring worked like new when we were done. I cleaned up the rest of the camera as best I could.

I discovered there’s actually a growing community of 127 users on flickr. Surprisingly, flickr is apparently exposing (no pun intended!) a lot of people to film for the first time and helping bring back interest in a number of dying film formats. I found helpful information there on how to load and use my camera.

There is one type of 127 Black and White film still manufactured, Efke, made by Fotokemika in Samobor, Croatia. Efke R100 film is manufactured using a “classic emulsion” formulation, meaning the photos look very much like they would have when the first 127 films were in use. Efke R100 is inexpensive through B&H photo at $5 a roll, so I ordered a few rolls. Coincidentally, Susan received a replica plastic Diana F 120 film camera from her sister as a gift around the same time, so we picked up some color 120 film for her and we went out to shoot a couple of test rolls with our new arsenal of cheesy cameras.

As it turns out, the real problem isn’t buying 127 film, it’s finding a lab willing to process it. While it’s technically possible for any professional photo lab to process the film, most don’t offer the service. Most 127 film users rely on mail-order processing through either Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, OR or Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, KS. With all the film labs in the Dallas area, however, I was happy to discover The Color Lab, Inc very close to my office. They process 127, 120, and most other film formats. They’re inexpensive, offer prints or scanning to CD and I’ve gotten same-day service so far. I highly recommend them if you’re looking for a photo lab in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area.

After getting my negatives back from the Color Lab, I scanned them on an Epson V500, cropped the images in Gimp, and parked them on flickr where you can check them out if you want to see what sort of photos a Bencini Comet S can produce.

As a final note. I recently discovered a Canadian manufacturer is now making 127 color film in small quantities. The film is called Bluefire Murano 160. It can be developed using standard C-41 color processing. It’s available in the US through the Frugal Photographer website for $7 a roll. I haven’t decided if I want to do any color with the Comet. For now I’ll probably stick to the Efke R100.

Austin Maker Faire 2008

Austin Maker Faire 2008

The Austin Maker Faire was last weekend and I was there, of course. I got a different view of it than last year because I spent part of the time as a maker. I helped out at the Dallas Personal Robotics Group table, where we showed off a variety of a small robots. We had several autonomous mobile robots, a robot arm that Martin interfaced with a game controller, a variety of robot components, and a couple of robot-like art pieces that were the result of my recent obsession with welding.

We did pretty well. There was a good-sized crowd of people at our booth throughout the faire, handling our robots and playing with the robot arm. Our table won an editor’s choice award from Make magazine. And we’re already talking about how we can do something bigger and more interactive next year.

All the usual crazy stuff was there too; cyclecide with their human powered carnival rides, including one they didn’t have last year called the Melody Maker, in which the rider propels spinning guitars to make music. The Austin Bike Zoo brought a 50 foot human powered rattlesnake that could be seen slithering in and out of the show barn and surrounding areas during the faire.

The Austin Robot Group had the giant ponginator robot, which is probably the biggest, loudest robot to be found in the State of Texas. They had about a dozen tables of smaller projects too. There were also fire-spewing machines, strange vehicles, medieval siege weapons, the Swap-O-Rama, DIY metal forging, liquid nitrogen ice cream, wind generators, linux clusters, pretty girls, (with mohawks), pirates, (and a pirate ship), tesla coil music, and a nice sunset on Saturday night.

New Camera

Well, I finally did it. I bought a new Canon 40D with a 17-55mm f2.8 zoom. I also picked up an EOS to FD adapter on eBay so I could get at least some use out of my existing FD lenses. This is the third Canon I’ve owned. My first was a Canon A1, my second was the T90, which I still have. I thought some other old-timers might be interested in a comparison of the Canon T90 film camera with the new Canon 40D digital, so I put a few photos and comments of the two bodies up on flickr.

I should be uploading some photos taken with the new camera soon. Stay tuned to my flickr account if you’re curious.

My old FD equipment is destined for eBay soon, starting with my Canon FD 2X extender Type A.

Work and Photography

Wow, I’ve been so busy lately. Has it really been over two months since I posted any sort of an update here? Well, work has mostly been a blur of SQL, Perl DBI, and RETS. I’ve been shooting lots of photos in what little time off I could manage: there was the Deep Ellum Arts Festival in April, followed by a little art exhibit by local roller derby girls called Derby Does Art, then Scarborough Fair, and the Continental Gin art collective’s open house.

May was more of the same with 90% work and 10% hitting unusual local events to photograph people and things. I caught the Dallas Asian Festival and the Flesh and Bone Erotic Arts Show (warning, some photos not work safe – but I think flickr defaults to safe mode these days, so unless you’re logged in and have safe mode off maybe ok?).

We did manage to take a weekend off in May to go to the Houston Art Car Parade. We saw lots of crazy people and cars as always. We drove down to the Orange Show art structure but it was closed during the art car events, so we weren’t able to go inside. Maybe we’ll get to see it next time we visit Houston.

Another interesting May event was the Great Texas B9 Build-Off where Lost-in-Space B9 builders and Star Wars R2-D2 builders from all over the US showed up for a day of robot construction. A lot of local robot builders including several DPRG members showed up as well. Some of the photos I took at this event will show up exclusively in the next issue of Robot Magazine, which should hit the stands in another month or so.

All this photography has got me interested in finally upgrading from my Fuji sf6000d to a true digital SLR. I really miss using my old Canon T90 35mm film camera and I’ve slowly convinced myself I need to buy the Canon 40D. Canon is doing their part by offering significant instant rebates this month, so it may actually happen this time.