Once the realm of techie males, engineering is at last attracting female students. And it's all thanks to an aggressive TV show, Robot Wars. Anne Sebba reports
When Mike Duke, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at South Bank University, gave his second-year students a choice - would they prefer to design a useful robot that could perform an intricate task such as climbing stairs or a deadly one that could compete in a popular television show the answer was unanimous. Robot Wars won the day.
So successful was South Bank's 12-week project last year in motivating the students and teaching them the real problems of completing a design brief, that this year Duke is making it a compulsory part of his course. Students are asked to design, manufacture and test a remote-controlled robot whose ultimate aim is to beat the mechanical innards out of its opponents in a brutal fight to the finish. The students, who come from a mixture of disciplines, also have to produce a written report with drawings and costings.
"Last year we gave each team Pounds 50 to build a robot and although most of them looked good they were made of junkyard scrap with, for example, window wipers as weapons. But you won't win like that and I think it's a shame when the students put in so much effort to be disadvantaged through cost. For next year I've already bought six motors, including gears, for Pounds 800 and I hope to have fewer, slightly larger teams build three robots with two motors each," Duke explains.
Robot Wars is one of BBC2's most popular programmes, with audiences of more than four million for its early evening Friday show - repeated twice over the weekend. It has achieved cult status among many students and amateur engineers, who chat to each other on the internet about aspects of robot design. The original idea came from the United States, where it is a live sporting event with big cash prizes.
The latest United Kingdom series has been extended to 45 minutes to allow time for interviews with competitors about the technology used to build the robots rather than simply watching them destroy each other, burn in the flame pit or be tossed there by one of the house robots, such as Sir Killalot.
Each programme has eight heavyweight robots fighting it out over three rounds of head-to-head battles. Heat winners return for a semi-finals fight and then a grand final. But, in addition to the battles, there are three judges who award points to all the robots in four categories: damage, aggression, control and style.
"In most of the fights the robots are fairly evenly matched, but if one gets pushed down the pit then it's useful that we've already examined them and made some decisions. But often both are still battling at the end of the time limit and then we have to make the whole judgement on points," explains Robot Wars judge Martin Smith, head of the mobile robots research unit at the University of East London and a competitor himself two years ago with the robot Cruella (the name chosen to incorporate UEL).
"Style includes the external appearance as well as the originality of engineering. Aggression is judged by whether the robot repeatedly runs away from its opponent or whether it has a ferocious weapon that it keeps in operation to win high points. Control can mean the ability to spin on the spot or a good surface grip. We have seen all the robots and I'm very impressed with the standard of engineering this time."
The number of entrants has also increased dramatically from 33 in the first series to the 600 teams that applied this year.
According to producer Bill Hobbins, Robot Wars owes its popularity to a combination of factors."It is entertaining because it combines comic violence with fantasy, imagery and gripping sound effects. We light it in such a way - not too much of the rosy disco look but more blue - to make it a little bit sinister and menacing, to give it a big stadium effect. But just in case anything goes wrong we do keep the audience behind a bullet-proof plastic screen." This year there was a potentially serious accident in the early stages of filming when a robot activated by mistake and injured a BBC technician.
The technician recovered, but the accident affected the schedule and in the debcle the team from Southampton University lost the opportunity for its robot to fight on television.
"This was a major disappointment after all the energy my fourth-year students had put in," says Greg Parker, reader in microelectronics at Southampton. "All the same, my lot got so much out of it that I realised we'd have to enter again next year. The key thing is the way it stimulates extra work that would otherwise never get done."
Martin Smith adds: "The skills involved in electronics and mechanical engineering often complement each other, but the students who do only one course are often too specialised. The skills you need to make a robot that can kill are the same ones you need for a reliable washing machine or CD player, yet most students have only a vague idea of what is involved in the real world of engineering."
Noel Sharkey, professor of computer science at Sheffield University, who teaches a third-year option course on robotics and who has judged all three contests, believes that the best thing about the programme is the encouragement it gives to young people, especially girls, to take up engineering. "I'm practically mobbed when I go out in Sheffield by ten and 12-year-olds asking advice about what subjects they should study in order to read engineering at university. Over the years we've tried everything to dispel the nerdy image of engineers without much success. Quite why a violent TV show should be able to do so is a puzzle, but it does appeal to girls."
Yet in spite of their overall enthusiasm, several academics have reservations about encouraging students to spend money, time and thought designing such violent weapons.
Duke says that given a choice he would prefer his students to concentrate on developing Earth-friendly solar cars, which have huge potential spin-offs. "But it doesn't inspire the same level of enthusiasm," says Sharkey. "In my department we don't normally build robots for fighting, we use them for navigation and to model biological beings, mainly as a research tool for looking at the interaction between genetic algorithms and neural networks. I'm not keen on robots that knock each other to pieces, I'd prefer them to do more intricate tasks, but then it wouldn't be good television and it would bore the audience. The real worry is that we're encouraging the development of devastating weapons that could end up having a military application. The implications of that are very frightening."
WE WILL EXTERMINATE...EXTERMINATE
Andy Pridmore, 23, is one of an eight-strong undergraduate team at South Bank University who has built the robot Mr Punch. Pridmore is taking a part-time degree course in mechanical engineering and also works at Imperial College as a technician. His team mates, who range in age up to 40, all have jobs while studying part-time, so it was difficult to find enough hours to build the robot.
Pridmore says Mr Punch's main advantage is that it can flip itself over without overbalancing and has spikes down the side to prevent it getting stuck, a shovel and a boxing glove, as well as a laughing box, which activates whenever it gets hit. He calculates that the robot cost about Pounds 200 because of departmental help.
"As part of our course we learn about motors and drive systems but actually building one is another matter. You can't just put the calculations on paper and expect it to work out exactly. It's good to get experience for real, even if on the day when you are up in a cherry-picker near the lights and getting very hot all you feel is stress. I am already planning to go back next year with a better robot," he says.
Rob Knight, 23, graduated from Cambridge in June with a first-class BA and an MEng and is considering several job offers. He and three other Cambridge undergraduates designed and built the robot Mortiss. Knight was team leader and driver but his main role was to gather sponsorship for this magnificent beast, which he estimates would have otherwise cost Pounds 40,000-Pounds 50,000 in materials alone. He persuaded 25 companies to sponsor parts of Mortiss even though the BBC forbids any advertising to appear on the robot.
Mortiss has just competed in the US in the Battle Bots competition hoping to win the top $5,000 prize. Although the team missed that, they came away with a motorised scooter instead.
Knight has been constantly upgrading Mortiss since the summer of 1997. He maintains that although it can deliver the most powerful blow "we rarely win fights because within the rules you can't carry enough energy for that weight to destroy another enemy. It's out by miles and you can't use explosives. The best design is obviously a wedge but we specifically set out to do something more interesting. Just moving a wedge or a box around, ramming each other, doesn't look good.
"But sending out lots of sparks looks great."