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Young Roanoke Scientists Engage in Sumo Robot Wars

Two Robots battle during last week’s competition.

by Beverly Amsler

People of a certain age may remember Rock’ Em, Sock ‘Em Robots, made popular in the 1960s.  The toys looked like people with arms that jabbed at the other robot’s head.  You won by landing one punch hard enough to make the other robot’s head pop up.

A Sumo Robot competition at the Science Museum of Western Virginia’s temporary location at Tanglewood Mall recently featured modern day homemade robots.  They were lightweight (under 2 1/2 pounds) and resembled a dune buggy without a seat.  The robots were fitted with large wheels that helped them maneuver around a tabletop, and the goal was to knock a small rubber duck off the table.

David Kaplan’s robot battled it out with another. It took the Roanoke resident between three and four hours to make the 1 1/4 pound robot out of Plexiglas and servo motors.

“It’s just a design I did; used some computer software to do the basic design.  I built it from scratch.  It’s the first one I really ever built for this.”

It was Kaplan’s second competition.  He says he did well in his first contest but not so well on this particular day, due to robot and human error.  He was constantly being flipped over by the other robot.

Sarah Salzberg from Blacksburg and her 7 1/2-year-old son Nate were two of the observers.  Nate even tried his hand at operating one of the robots.  His mother says her son “is really into science” and he’s built “many a Lego robot.”  They have an Erector set but it doesn’t have any motorized parts.

“He’s naturally drawn to this kind of stuff.  He’s doesn’t care about sports.  All his friends play soccer and baseball . . .and he’s naturally drawn to science and animals.”

She’s looking forward to getting her son involved in a Lego club at school and possibly through the Rec Center when Nate turns eight.

Kevin Hines was in charge of the competition. “The idea is really to get people excited about science and technology and math, and have some fun doing it.”  He’s coached school robotics teams for the past seven years and his goal is to have a robotics team in every school in the Roanoke Valley.  About half the schools in Botetourt County, where Hines lives, have such teams.  He also wants a robotics club in the Roanoke Valley for kids and adults.

Hines, an engineer at ITT, is trying to hold one competition a month at the Science Museum.  His newly formed group is also holding a meeting once a month.  They’re also trying to have organized competitions.  The next one will be a soccer contest.

It’s relatively inexpensive to get started in the hobby of robot building.

“It’s a little bit of work [but] you can buy kits.  They actually sell kits for robot sumo.  You can get started under $100,” said Hines. “There’s the transmitter for about $25, plus two motors cost about $10-$20 each and batteries are about $10.”

Kaplan, also an engineer at ITT, encourages new members of the club.  “Come stop by, talk to us and get some ideas on getting started.  We have some spare parts we can bring in and start from there.  The main thing is to have fun with it.”

“I started with Legos as a kid, then there’s Erector sets.  It’s all in having fun.”

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