October 9, 2002

OpenSaurus battle bots: Mostly for fun, but some serious real-world applications

-By Grant Gross -

We've been hearing a lot about Linux in the enterprise these days, but sometimes, as Linus Torvalds likes to say, Open Source projects are "just for fun."

Such is the case with the OpenSaurus project, a half dozen guys from North Carolina creating battle robots using Open Source software and easy-to-find hardware. Yes, you know, battle robots, the machines that star in the popular Comedy Central show BattleBots and in scores of less visible competitions around the world.

The OpenSaurus team, showing off a couple of their robots at the Lulu Tech Circus in Raleigh, North Carolina, a couple of weeks ago, couldn't have looked more earnest and serious about their fun project. But if you'd ask this bunch why they want to build a battle robot, they'd give the same reasons that most geeks give for diving into projects.

"Probably because it's more of a puzzle," says Bobby Edwards, the chief design consultant for the project. "You can take something that looks impossible and put it together."

There's also a good reason for using Open Source software and off-the-self hardware, including a small Linux distribution, on board one of these metal-mashing machines, and it's the same reason many projects open-source their code. "You get a whole lot of people from all over the world with different perspectives all working on the same problem," says Blake Watters, leader of the OpenSaurus software project on SourceForge.net. "You have a bunch of people all over the world constantly looking at the code."

The OpenSaurus booth was one of the most crowded at the Lulu Tech Circus, with a constant stream of onlookers oohing and ahhing over a 125-pound bot and a 225-pound bot beating up old computers, fax machines and copiers. While those two bots weren't running Linux, instead running custom remote controls, the goal of the year-old project is to build a Linux-controlled bot complete steel mace mounted on a spring-loaded steel tail on one end and a steel spike on the other end. The team hopes to create a "semi-autonomous" robot that can be preprogrammed to carry out a list of commands, says team member Andrew Gray.

"We really want to win some battle bot fights and provide a platform that other people can work on," Gray says. "Most everything is running off a straight remote control now."

The team is aiming for controls based on an 802.11b network card.
The operating system monitors the user control panel and executes commands
to the robotic platform from the person controlling the device.

"By developing a basic platform that can monitor a defined set of parameters
and send an isolated data package to each of the competing bots, it becomes
possible to control as many bots as you want for whatever competition
happens to be going on -- without competing for frequency or bandwidth," Edwards says. This is accomplished "by combining the data from each bot controller and sending them out in sequence on a single frequency in defined data packages that control each individual bot."

The team plans to use Linux code with transponders networked to the bot platforms to create a real-time system of scoring and operating statistics that can be monitored and sent to media graphic devises, such as LCD screens and scoreboards, Edwards says.

While battle robots, robot sumo and robot soccer might seem like all fun and games, the OpenSaurus guys say the experiments used in those competitions can translate into machines that carry out serious functions, such as minesweepers or firefighting bots. An Open Source project makes the technology used in battle robots available for all kinds of uses, says Edwards, whose employer McGregor Enterprises makes video games, including some of the control boards the OpenSaurus team is using.

"I think a good, Open Source implementation of a control system is good for any of those things," Gray adds. "You don't need to just smash up stuff. Right now, it's just that a lot of the emphasis seems to be on that."

In addition to working on the Linux-based bot and getting it ready for some competitions, the team is looking for sponsors. "We want to make it like a Nascar robot, with the company name on it," Gray says.


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