The scourge of Covid 19 has felled many a popular sporting event across the world. A victim of this pestilence is a little heard-of (outside its fan base) game called Robocon which is promoted by the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). The ABU is the biggest broadcasting union in the world. Currently, the ABU has 272 members in 76 countries on four continents. Through its members’ network, the ABU can reach 3 billion or 300 crore people across the Asia – Pacific region. Since 2002, ABU Robocon has been held every year in August in a different country. This year’s championship, slated for 23 August in Fiji, has now been postponed indefinitely.
My involvement with the Robocon for the initial three years was a thrilling experience.
One morning in October 2000, I got a note from my boss in Doordarshan regarding an imminent visit by two officials from the ABU in connection with the proposed ABU Robocon to be held in Japan two years later. Robocon? No one knew what that was. But, as I had been looking after the International Relations in DD, I was asked to co-ordinate with the ABU officials.
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Robocon, I gathered, was an acronym for Robotic Contest. In this unique amalgam of TV, sports and engineering skills, Robocon was designed to help students of engineering to translate their theoretical knowledge into an ingenious and innovative practical form. And, that too in a fun-filled way! In other words, the undergraduates in a team of three were to design and fabricate robots themselves on a given theme, the objective being to complete certain predefined tasks within a maximum time of 3 minutes before a competing team did that or to prevent the robots of the opponent to achieve the goal.
I also gleaned that Prof. C. Amarnath of IIT Bombay had been organising an inter college robotic competition. Armed with this information, Messrs Minoru Kurita and Nobuhiro Sato of ABU and I decided to meet Prof. Amarnath. Nothing much came out of this meeting, though. Meanwhile, I had a change in my assignment and the Robocon project was mothballed as were my plans to produce a 13 part series on this novel idea.
But in order to honour its commitment to participate in the inaugural ABU Robocon in Tokyo scheduled for August 2002, DD, after a gap of one year, asked me to revive the project but sans any monetary support for it. Of the several agencies that were approached, it was the MHRD, thanks to Mr. K. S. Sarma, Additional Secretary which agreed to finance the project. It preferred IIT Kanpur over IIT Bombay to be the nodal agency.
Months went by in meetings and travels to and from Kanpur. It was only in February 2002 that IITK was finally ready to host the National Robocon. But given the short lead time to the ABU contest which was just six months away, it was not found feasible to hold an open contest. Instead, only a few teams had to be invited for the final selection based on their past performances in other smaller robotic events. Out of the four teams invited by the contest Director, only three — IIT Kanpur, Institute of Technology, Nirma University, Ahmedabad and Vivekanand Education Society Institute of Technology [VESIT], Mumbai — agreed to participate.
Thus, all my grandiose plans to hold a nation-wide contest and to make a 13 part series on DD Robocon had to be abandoned. Not only that. There were many sceptics who felt that the designing, fabrication and testing of robots and that too by students and then the staging of the contest could not be achieved in such a short time of 4-5 months, especially when it was also the examination time and each concerned institution had a different examination schedule to follow. Therefore, instead of wasting time, money and effort, it was wiser to participate as an observer rather than as a contestant in the inaugural ABU Robocon. However, a “can do and will do” attitude of the core committee comprising the mentors of the three teams, the team members and this writer finally prevailed.
This resolve helped us to negotiate the many bumps and blockades that we faced at every step in the ensuing months.
Staging the contest
Staging the final event as a TV show or spectator sport had its own problems. The foremost being the short duration of the game: at the most 3 minutes. Hence, for a match consisting of the best of 3 sets/rounds of 3 minutes each, the maximum possible duration of the event could only be 9 minutes. And in case of a straight sets win by a team, the play time would not exceed 6 minutes. Add a couple of minutes for the introductions, preparation time, and time out by the teams, the whole event would not last for more than 15 minutes.
As it was to be a new sport for both the in-stadium spectators and the TV audiences, some additional elements were needed to make the game more entertaining and appealing. We, therefore, decided to bring in separate music bands which also featured especially composed songs by Doordarshan’s producer of the show, anchors, cheer leaders (six years before IPL promoted this concept) for each team and pit them against each other — in a kind of a duel– to lend support to their designated teams. A fair with giant wheels, puppets and a crafts mela was organised outside the contest venue. The endeavour was to turn the event into a visible, fun-filled enterprise.
Doordarshan Robocon Contest
Given the background of the endemic uncertainties and problems, and despite working almost round the clock, the students were unable to complete the building and testing of their robots until the kick off time. This meant that the robots had not really been tested under match conditions – no practice games could be organised and no one, including the players, had any idea as to how the game would develop.
All the teams had designed “extremely competent, lightweight autonomous robots [once started, the robots would work automatically overcoming obstacles and negotiating the opponent’s machines].” Equally good were the manual robots [every team had to use one robot which had to be steered by a player]. Each team employed innovative strategies to reach the targets, recover from errors, disable the opponent’s robots etc.
Though he himself was in charge of the IITK team, Mr, Amitabh Mukerjee, the contest director, particularly commended the VESIT team’s robots. Incidentally, this was the only team to have girls in it. Two at that! However, the results belied Mr. Mukherjee’s assessment. The VESIT team could manage to score only one point in the league match against the three by IITK and eight by Nirma. In the finals, Nirma trounced IITK by 21 to 7 points to earn the right to represent Doordarshan and India in the inaugural ABU Robocon on 31 August, 2002 in Tokyo.
The league matches that were played earlier on the day of the domestic contest in Kanpur on 21st July, 2002 gave the first intimations of the production problems of televising the sport. For days, the production team had been mentally preparing itself to face the new reality – there wasn’t going to be either only one ball in action or just one area in the field where action would occur — features common to all sports, and something that the TV crews had learnt to deal with. Instead, many robots, moving at varying speeds, could spring up in action simultaneously from different directions and head for one of the 17 targets.
To pan the camera or to zoom, to linger on a robot hitting a target or to cut to another in action was the great Hamletian dilemma. There was to be no opportunity to make amends later as the game itself would end in 3 minutes at the most. In practice, one game ended in less than a minute. It would be apt to mention that for three consecutive years, I raised with ABU this problem [of many robots being in action simultaneously] of the Robocon being TV unfriendly.
Finally from the 4th Robocon held in 2005, ABU changed the rules to allow only two robots – one autonomous and one manual – per team.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned impedimenta, and even the stress of tilting at the proverbial windmills, the infectious energy of the young players and their spirit of adventure motivated the crews, who had literally stood on their toes for a good part of 12 hours that day, to deliver a commendable performance. The result was the peak primetime airing of the programme on 30th July, 2002 on Doordarshan’s National Network.
This endeavour resulted in Doordarshan notching up three first time achievements in its history: a Championship was named after Doordarshan, a trophy was awarded by it to an outside entity, and that Doordarshan was involved in the selection of a national team and to lead it in an international event.
As the leader of the national team, I also had to carry with me the 15 minute documentary film, mandatory for every participating team leader, to Tokyo, the purpose being to introduce India to the audience and to also document the construction of the robots by the students. While the first part was accomplished easily, the filming of the designing and assembly of robots was an ordeal due to the unpreparedness of the students. Ideally, only one camera team should have filmed all the three teams’ construction activities. As that couldn’t be, different film units were deployed at intervals to film the building of the robots.
Among the 20 teams that participated in the 1st ABU Robocon in Tokyo were many unfancied teams: from Fiji, Macao, Vietnam, Nepal, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Besides, the more “technologically advanced” countries like Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia contested. A team leader from Thailand remarked to me that given India’s prowess in computers and software, he saw India and Japan competing in the final. Well, neither team could reach the final.
Our team was knocked out in the 2nd round itself. To everybody’s great surprise, it was Vietnam which won the championship emphatically. The reason for the Indian team’s poor showing became clear later on. Many teams participating in the ABU Robocon had beaten a large number of contestants in their respective domestic contest: Thailand had 51teams competing for the top honours, Indonesia had 35; China saw the participation of 32 teams while Vietnam selected its national team from 26 teams that were in the fray. Some of these teams had not only prepared and conducted their national contests months in advance, but their National Broadcasters had enthusiastically supported the project and had instituted prize monies too as an incentive to the participants.
Astonishing as it may sound, Vietnam has won the top prize beating all the fancied teams for a record 7 times followed by China with 5 wins – 4 years in a row from 2007 to 2010, and NHK of Japan which had been organising the domestic championships for a couple of years prior to the commencement of ABU Robocon could manage only 2 wins in the 18 championships held so far. And India has only clocked a zero.
Another irony or embarrassment concerns the elite IITs who have managed to win the Doordarshan National Championship title only 3 times compared with the astounding 8 sweeps by the Institute of Technology Nirma University, Ahmedabad. In fact, the western Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra have dominated the national championships over the years.
I led the Indian team to the first three ABU Robocons (2002- 2004) which were held respectively in Tokyo, Bangkok and Seoul. These championships, as is mandatory, were hosted by the respective national broadcasters. It was a very humbling experience to see their professionalism, technical competence, production quality and venue management. Moreover, the hospitality provided by them to the participants was first-rate. India did host two ABU Robocons in 2008 and 2014 respectively at Pune. But then, that was just that! Not with a bang, but a whimper.