Dancing bots

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am


Ah, robots. Forget those machines of destruction in Terminator or The Transformers.

Instead, picture three dancing robots in baggy trousers as they wave their mechanical hands, slide down into a split and then do a handstand - all in sync to a funky hip hop tune.

The three robots were built by a team of five from Buddhist Ho Nam Kam College as part of the 13th Hong Kong Robotic Olympiad held at the Science Museum last Saturday. Some 600 teams from 50 secondary and primary schools competed in more than 50 categories that included robot design, hurdles, rugby, tug of war, swimming relays and even underwater treasure hunt.

The first runner-up team found their inspiration in hip hop culture for building their robots. Over the past three months they worked tirelessly, staying in their school's lab until 7pm daily.

They watched YouTube videos, designed costumes and programmed their robots to respond to the groove the same way human dancers do.

The students had to teach themselves first, though. 'None of us knew about hip hop before,' said team captain Zack Lui Chun-kit, 16, a Form Four student.

'The toughest thing was synchronisation and balancing. Our robots lost balance many times before they finally made it.'

The team's coach, Li Chi-wang, says students usually show curiosity about the workings of robots at first, but soon lose interest because of the painstaking laboratory work and repeated trials that are required. 'But at times a team persists and falls in love with the screws, robot parts and programming,' he said.

Robot-making is not just about mathematics and engineering; it's also about aesthetics. Other contestants in the championship showed off their creativity by displaying robot dogs, a dancing panda and even a circus show.

'We would love to try something different - not humanoid robots like usual but something wilder, say, jumping amplifiers that can do somersaults in a circus,' said Lam Tsz-kiu, 18, from Carmel Divine Grace Foundation Secondary School, who was second runner-up in the robot dance category.

Meanwhile, teams of robots were ready for a swimming medley relay to showcase their talents in breast-stroke, butterfly, freestyle and backstroke swimming.

'It isn't that hard to build a robot,' said Louis Fan Wai-ki, chairman of the Hong Kong Robotic Olympic Association. 'But if you want to outdo rival teams - even for just a second or two in a robot race - then there are no shortcuts. You have to go through a long process of trial and error.'

And there can often be nasty surprises. Chen Tsun-ming, 11, and Jenny Chan Cheuk-ying, 12, from Dr Catherine F Woo Memorial School were members of the winning team in the robot swimming category. 'It wasn't until the game began that we realised our robots were too big to stay within their swimming lanes,' Chen recalled.

Jenny added: 'Luckily, we managed to fix the problem using a simple tool: a clamp.'

The top performers in each category will represent Hong Kong at the International Robotic Olympiad finals to be held in Guangxi in August. They will face students from Shanghai, Liaoling and Thailand.

To learn more about the Robotic Olympiad and its workshops organised for teachers and students, visit www.hkro2010.blogspot.com