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Roboteers, stand by

24 years after Robot Wars began and garnered interest around the world, Pakistan lags behind in the tech

By Nabil Tahir |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED September 11, 2022

Have you ever seen a fight where the fighters use their unique moves and weapons to cut through and destroy the opponent's body. This is Robot War. This is a fight where two remote-controlled robots enter the ring for a 3-minutes match, from where one has to go out being lifted while the other drives away with success.

Robots in today's era play a considerable role. The world is moving towards an age when there will be bots working and replacing humans. The reason? They can labour without salary and benefit you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are often quicker and more efficient than humans. Humans can also benefit from robots since they can effortlessly perform repetitive, tedious, or risky tasks while people focus on more exciting tasks.

While robots enter every field, they are not left behind in coming against each other in a battle. The engineers develop their best robots for fighting to make them the most powerful robot, having strong resistance against the opponent robot. The two robots do their best to destroy or disable each other using whatever means.

If we talk about the famous battles between the bots, Robot Wars was the largest global event and British TV series launched in 1998 that featured the world's best robots. Soon a similar event, Battle Bots, gained popularity. Since 2000, it has been held every year. The event doesn't feature robots from every country. However, only those whose robots qualify for international events. Still, many countries are growing and making advancements in making the best battle robots and are yet to make their debut on the international stage.

Robot combat in Pakistan

Pakistan is one of them. While the UK and the US were the early birds in starting robot wars, Pakistan had to wait for 13 years before the first robot war event was held at an engineering university in Karachi in 2011, that too was not a solo robot combat event but a part of a larger event featuring robots in different fields.

The Express Tribune talked to one of the engineers who have been involved in robot wars since the early 2010s and now is a participant and a teacher too. Amar Bhatti of DHA Sufa University witnessed his first robot war fight in 2011 when he was an O-level student and went to Fast University to showcase his project. Amar, who had been a fan of the American TV series Battle Bot heard about the robot war competition being held at the same SEE'11. He went on to witness the show and defined it as a whole different feeling than watching it on television.

Amar, who initially was more interested in watching than being a participant, said that it was until his school friend who had an interest in making a robot invited him to do the electronics part of the making. By the end of 2012, they were able to give birth to their first combat robot DARWIN. But soon, his partner moved abroad, but Amar got so involved in this that he took DARWIN to the first event at the same University but at a different event in 2014.

Soon he developed another Robot, WHIPLASH and participated in the current biggest robot competition, National Engineering Robotics Competition (NERC), held at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) College of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME). Since then, WHIPLASH has participated in all the major events held in Pakistan. With his 10-member team, Amar has won several events. He believes that with the world making developments in robot fights, from the ones on the land to drone fights, Pakistan, with people not recognizing its potential, is going backwards.

Another engineer who started making combat robots as a university project and now carries on as a hobby and actively participates in robot combats in Pakistan is Shah Fahad Ahmed from the team Wrecker of Dawood University of Engineering & Technology in Karachi. He says this is a very much recognized sport globally, but it is yet to be fully explored in Pakistan.

Talking about the event, he says that this is the type of fight that people usually see in movies in the form of transformers etc. "The difference between movies and real-life is that they are shown to be more look like a human, standing and walking whereas in real-life it moves with the help of wheel traction," he said, adding that as there is a weight limit in the competitions, so one has to balance the weight of body and armour.

Lack of awareness


This sport is not only crucial for entertainment purposes, but it has a lot of potentials to take engineers' knowledge and experience to a higher level. Fahad, who graduated from the University in 2019, still participates in the robot combats, for this is a learning opportunity.

"People are unaware of this sport, and very few teams are making combat robots here. This is really important for the students to learn more and experience using different techniques to make a robot," he said.

Currently, there is no solo event for Robo Wars held in Pakistan. All the events are part of a larger event, and Robo war is probably the smallest one. "NERC is one of the biggest recognized events and the only one backed by the government. Even their robot wars is a small event," he said.

He shared that earlier, this event was televised by Pakistan Television (PTV). But, now, this is not covered by any TV channels, which is also a major reason behind this not being a popular sport in Pakistan. "Since it is not shown on TV, there is no attraction for the sponsors in this event. I have tried to hold solo events on Robo War and have shared the proposal with the companies and government institutions like Ignite, but they have shown no interest saying that they don't have a business model that can support or fund events like these," he said.

He added that this is where the work needs to be done. These institutes don't understand the value of this. This will help in making sound engineers. "The universities and institutes spend a lot on holding seminars and workshops where the student's interest is almost nonexistent. I have been through this period, and I see the students today. They only take these seminars for the sake of making an appearance. Otherwise, the student's interest is where the fun is or where the real learning is," he said.

He further explained that when a student takes part in a university project, they make the minimum effort in making the robot to get marks and get a degree. "Events like Robo bots are where they experience the real commercial side of the robots. In universities, the students make basic robots that are not that reliable and durable. When they participate in events like robot wars, they experience the commercial side. They have made a robot that is reliable, durable and strong enough. This is where the real learning is, and when they go into the market with this experience, they are the best. In contrast, he added that the ones going to the market straight from the University struggle to make durable and reliable products," he added.

Adding another reason why robo war types of events should be sponsored, he said, "This is where you enjoy making the robots. And when you enjoy doing something, you perform better. There is a global approach in, which the kids are given an environment and enjoyable technique that develops an interest of the kids to learn. These competitions help students develop an interest in their studies and universities."

He added that even if 10% of the budget of the seminars and workshops is allocated to robot wars, a good event can be organized.

As there are no solo events held in Pakistan and no companies are up to sponsor any of the kind, Fahad has decided to hold a solo event on a smaller scale funding the event on his own. "I will be holding a Robo war event at Pakistan Grammar School by the end of October with a hope that it will get the need attention and people start knowing this sport," he said.

Fewer teams, less competition

Healthy competition is held when there are a massive number of teams and competitions are held. In Pakistan, although it is growing, still very less number of teams participate regularly. Amar shares that he has fought with teams from different universities and schools but not many of them show up in every competition.

He added that major robot competitions are currently held at NUST, Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology and HITEC University Taxila Cantt. He believes that although the competitions are being held for many years, there is room for improvement in all the events.

"We have faced various teams from almost all engineering as well as school students and teams from Sir Syed University, Dawood University, Air University, have always given good competition other professional universities as well such as IoBM and SAZABIST too," said Amar adding that usually 4 to 5 robots are seen in the competition besides their robots out of which two to three are functional the rest typically have issues that prevent them from completing the initial rounds.

There are people like Fahad and a team LUCIFER from Air University in Islamabad. They have been actively participating in the competitions and are known to be one of the top teams in Pakistan, along with WHIPLASH. "This is because we participate every year and make modifications and improvements to our robots in every competition. We take learning from the previous events and then make modifications accordingly," he said.

Budget woes


To make a robust robot that can compete on the international stage, the teams need a hefty budget to put the best parts and materials into the robot. According to Fahad a good combat robot can cost around 200k to 300k rupees. Fahad currently owns two robots made at the cost of under Rs40,000 due to a limited budget.

"We are doing this as a hobby, so we invest the least we can. Suppose we start getting a sponsor and the competitions are held with high price money. In that case, we can easily make better robots than these," said Fahad, who left taking part in the competitions after his graduation in 2019 and then started making robots again in 2022 with a team of his juniors from the University.

Even Fahad's bots have won various local competitions but believe it will take much more to compete internationally. "No team has participated in an international competition. Even from India, there was only one team that went to Battle Bot named ATOM, and that too finished on the last spots," he said.

"The international competitions are really tough. Right now, we are not at the level that we can go there to compete. It will take years to reach that level at the pace we are currently moving," said Fahad, who made his team in 2016 and won his first competition in 2017 in a FAST number of awards in 2018.

The engineers interested in developing a better robot don't get much competition. They see the same eight to 10 robots every round as some new ones get disqualified following technical issues.

"We cannot even compete with India. There they have a huge event held at the IIT in Mumbai. Still, we cannot compete as there is no budget, no sponsor, and students are making robots just for their projects," he said, adding that with a budget of two to three million rupees, a large-scale robot war event can be organized.

What it takes to build a combat robot?

The combat robots are not challenging to make; one just needs to have knowledge of electrical work and can make a robust robot. There are no specific courses taught at the University but only the basics of engineering, which conveys most of the information to get started. The teams currently competing in Pakistan consist of members who are electrical engineers.

The combat robots are of two types lightweight (75 grams to 60lbs) and heavyweight (up to 340lbs). The building process is the same no matter what size if being built. After deciding the size, you have set a budget for the robot. You can spend as much as you want, but you must keep the design and weight category in mind. Maintaining everything from motors to weapons within the defined weight.

For budgeting, you can explore the details of the already made robots, similar to the one you are building. Once that is done, you move on to the design of the robot. Usually, the combat robots are made with methods including; a full body spinner, dual wedge disk with different placements or the axe model. You just have to keep it unique from others and competitive. Also, try to install easily replaceable parts to save time and money.

The components are the next and most crucial part of the model. Motors are the driving force behind any size robot you build. They make your robot move and, in many cases, power your weapons. The four things to remember while choosing a motor are torque/speed, voltage, size, and weight. "You need the maximum kinetic energy to destroy the opponent's robot. We use the weapon made from the body of the ship, which is an inch thick. Then we use motors that are powerful enough to bear the impact during the fight. Right now, our robot has so much energy that it can even brake the walls of the arena," said Fahad.

Then comes the design of the robot that can fit the components and make the maximum impact on the opponent. Then comes the manufacturing of the part, followed by assembling them to shape the robot. Once the robot is in shape, the electronic wiring and controls will be set. This plays a vital role as this will make your controls on the robot efficient. Today, robots can be controlled by a mobile phone or a controller.

Talking about the type of engineers required to build a combat robot, Amar giving an example of his own team, informed that the team WHIPLASH consist of electrical engineers, including himself, who has the role of robot operator, design and integration of mechanical and electronics aspects and general technical work. Riaz Ahmed is also involved in mechanical and electronics work and also deals with logistics. The structure of Whiplash was made at a workshop of the family of teammate Ahsan; Shariq Shamsi is also involved in electronics development, while other members are also electrical engineers.

However, Fahad was of the same opinion that anyone with basic engineering knowledge could build a combat robot. "Most of us are electrical engineers, and we have been building combat robots," he said, adding that once the robot is made, there is continuous maintenance needed according to the design.

"We do maintenance before participating in every competition. The robot mechanics and electronics have been overhauled fully after the battle, and the main weapon has been changed if required. We have been using the same since the start. But the motors and batteries are the most important part to be changed and are the biggest expense," he said.

He added that building a robot is easy, but making the modification according to the formidable opponent is important, and that can only be done with a stronger budget.

The need of the hour

Pakistan may have many top engineering universities, but until they ignore the importance of getting the student experience making battle bots, they will never get to explore the real potential of the students and also of the industry.

Fahad believes that more and more awareness of the importance of these events should be given to the institutions and financers so that they start investing. "I have been trying to raise awareness among the students, and by holding small=scale events, the interest of the people will be seen," said Fahad, who runs an institute by the name of Creativo, where he gives the students education about combat robots.

"This should be promoted by televising the events and getting coverage on the social and traditional media. Companies will approach only when this gets the eyeball. Right now, people don't know about this event. The more it is shown, the more it will develop the interest of everyone," he said.

Similarly, Amar has also been educating students at the university he went to, along with holding events on his own to raise awareness. He believes that if the work on this is not started soon, he fears that Pakistan will only increase the gap between the international standards.

It has been more than 24 years since the robot wars, but Pakistan still has yet to build compatible robots.