Questioning Robot Combat Paradigms
Many elements of robot combat are simply taken for granted. With dwindling numbers of robots showing up for tournaments and audiences shrinking to single digits, maybe it's time to think about alternatives? Some of the ideas I put forth below are `half baked', but they might serve as a starting point for a rebirth of the sport.
Let's take a look at some of the sport's paradigms:
Robots are classed by weight
Since the very first Robot Wars, robots have been classed into weight categories. This results in builders being driven toward exotic and expensive materials, battery technologies, motors, and construction techniques. Are there other classification criteria that could be used?
Matches are timed
It's handy for a builder to know how much battery power they might need in a match, but it might make an interesting trade-off between aggression and staying power if there were no time limit. Do you try for a high-energy quick kill, or do you plan to outlast your opponent?
How do you prevent a match from turning into a couple of barely mobile machines creeping across the arena?
Matches are scored
There were no `scoring' judges at the first Robot Wars (1994 Robot Wars rules). Matches went on for ten minutes or until someone was immobilized. If at the end of ten minutes both 'bots were still mobile they BOTH went thru to the next round. The audience often called for a 'rematch' at the early wars as well.
If you have judging, you have controversy. Robotica had technical judges to call penalties for things like `going out of bounds' and to determine whether specific goals had been completed, but there was no `scoring' as such. If you design a competition with very specific goals (first 'bot thru the course, last 'bot on the platform, etc.) the judging becomes simple and technical in nature.
For an example of how convoluted and controversial scoring robot combat can be, see: Try Your Hand as a Combat Robot Judge.
You're supposed to damage the other robot
There are a good number of people in robot combat who really like to destroy stuff. OK. but should that be the entire purpose of the sport? In spite of the opinions of one well-known judge, the way matches are scored does heavilly influence the design and operation of combat robots. The current damage / agression scoring guidelines put a very narrow focus on the sport.
A lot of differences in the style of robotic combat can also be traced to the design of the combat arena:
The rules for the first Robot Wars competition in San Francisco (1994) determined the winner as the 'bot that immobilized their opponent. Pinning against an arena obstacle was OK: thirty-seconds of immobility and you were gone. If both 'bots were mobile at the end of 10 minutes, they both advanced! Judges did no scoring, but could disqualify a robot for "excessive evasion".
The rules at Robot Wars 1995 shortened the matches to 5 minutes and settled draws by audience response. A panel of three judges stood by if the audience vote was close. The criteria of "Damage, Aggressiveness and Control" were first mentioned here. Immobilisation thru pinning was still the preferred method of winning.
The Northeast Robotics Club came up with rules for a featherweight 'Sportsman' class with weapon restrictions that reduce damage and encourage creative design. Section 2.2 of the 2007 Robot Fighting League Rules include specifications for this 30-pound sportsman class. The wording of these rule sets are still a bit vague, but the outlook is positive!
Robots fight in a bulletproof box with a flat floor
High-speed, high-energy weapons send shattered bot pieces in all directions. If you don't have rotary weapons or projectiles, the audience protection requirements become much less stringent.
Large boxes with walls of high-impact plastic are very expensive to construct, transport, set-up, tear-down, and maintain. There are very few heavyweight-rated arenas available in the whole of the country. Several robot combat tournaments have been held with only limited audience protection and strict limits on weaponry. I suspect these tournaments give insurance agents indigestion, but they are a lot of fun!
Want to discourage wedges? Attempts at rules to exclude wedges result in difficult to interpret language that ends up excluding other interesting designs as well (see section 2.2 of the RFL Rules). It's simpler and less restrictive to simply get rid of the smooth, flat floor. The 'real world' has rocks, lumps, and depressions that would cause real grief for wedges and potential danger for mega-spinners. Apply some reality!
See Antbotica for a small-scale example of thinking 'outside the box'.
Somebody always wins
I've already mentioned the 'double win' scenario from the first Robot Wars. There have been calls for a 'double loss' under certain conditions as well. This is not unheard of in other types of competition. It is possible for both contestants at a chess match to be eliminated thru a judges decision of 'double forfeit' if their play is determined to be somehow unworthy. It is also possible for both contestants in a drag race to be eliminated via a 'double red-light' jump start.
If the robots in a contest are simply not capable of doing what is required of them, then it may be best to award a 'double loss' and save the audience the hardship of watching either of them continue in the tournament.