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Robots and Humans Race, Everyone Wins

By Elizabeth Preston
Apr 13, 2015 5:00 AMNov 20, 2019 8:25 PM


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I never pass up a robot race. I can say this because I have heard of exactly one robot race ever, and I did not pass it up.

On April 12 I attended the Robot Race and Human 5K, sponsored by Vecna Cares. This was actually two separate races, a human 5K followed by a robot 100-meter dash. Or a 100-meter slow crawl, depending which robot we’re talking about. Or a 50-meter roll followed by a dead stop.

You can get the full play-by-play in the slideshow above. There were triumphs; there were disasters; there were Roombas. There were a lot of sweaty humans marveling at modern technology while also, perhaps, feeling reassured that robots aren’t quite ready to take over the world. If you ever hear about a robot race in your neighborhood, I’d recommend not passing it up.

The Robot Race and Human 5K brought together humans and non-humans of all speeds in Cambridge, MA.

The cardboard box you see here checking his watch finished the 5K in third place.

Robot wranglers prepared for the 100-meter race coming after the human 5K.

A robot named K-9 got a tuneup.

Canine and K-9.

A team of Worcester Polytechnic Institute students brought their robot named WALRUS, shown here receiving its race number. WALRUS is built to navigate rough terrain, climb stairs, and even swim.

Whatever this is, it did not compete. (Some robots seemed to suffer from last-second technical difficulties.)

...Is this just a Roomba?

Competitive robots had grabbing arms so that they could attempt a "water stop" (picking up a plastic cup) midway through the race.

The "water stop" had been described in race materials as a Dixie cup of confetti, so teams were surprised to arrive and find something else. "THIS is what we designed for," complained a member of this team, interrupting last-minute adjustments to hold up a tiny paper cup. "This is a Dixie cup. THAT is a Solo cup."

An airplane-shaped robot made of plywood flew through the course with no problem. Its creator, a Vecna employee, shrugged and told me he built it in "like a day and a half."

Some petite robots handled the water stop just fine, but couldn't compete with larger bots in speed.

Don't be fooled; this is a robot, not a car. The "driver" was not steering but holding on for dear life as she zigzagged down the course.

The car-bot did not complete the water stop, but it did flatten most of the cups.

It must have seemed like a good idea when this member of Walpole Robotics, a high-school team, decided to tether himself to his robot. Then the robot got on the course and started lurching wildly down the asphalt. They made it to the turn-around before the teenager faceplanted. From the ground, he shook off the tether and let the robot drive away.

WALRUS finally took the course and drove straight into this traffic pylon, where it stayed for the rest of the heat. The WPI team blamed a connectivity problem.

One heat was dedicated to "autonomous robots," which apparently meant "robots that don't make it down the course no matter how much you kick them."

The winners!

WALRUS was escorted ingloriously off the course.

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