Wacky robot races

Geek out as inventors race their crazy creations on Sunday July 10

Xinchejian, meaning 'new workshop', is a non-profit community space in a Jingan warehouse where people can get together and work on all sorts of design projects. It's one of China's first hacker spaces, places for people to collaborate on projects to create stuff, usually with a digital, technological or engineering bent.

On our visit, a jumble of wires, pliers and soldering irons topped the tables as people tinkered with projects as disparate as hydroponic set-ups and 3D printers. There are plans to get artists using the space in the future.

Robotics is one area that the founders of Xinchejian are particularly interested in, especially since the availability of smartphones and open source software and hardware is making robot building increasingly simple and affordable. David Li, Xinchejian’s foreman, says robots that required a grant to build when he was in college can now be made for money earned in 'an afternoon's work at Starbucks. And you don't have to deal with transistors and stuff,’ he says. 'Everything's digital now.'

To increase awareness of the popular potential of robotics, Xinchejian has organised an autonomous robot race this month. The most basic creations cost just a few hundred RMB in parts, and can be built and programmed in a single weekend, but are capable of navigating a track and dodging obstacles. We meet some of the competitors in the race...

Autonomous Robot Toy 7 (ART-7)

Builder Ricky Ng-Adam, 35, a software programmer from Canada
Experience The former Google programmer and co-founder of Xinchejian started the ‘SONIA’ submarine robotics club at his university, L’école de Technologie Supérieure, back in 1999. The hull of their first ’bot was built from a fire extinguisher.
'Bot construction Remote controlled car (67RMB), Arduino microcontroller (180RMB) and infrared sensors (30RMB each), from Taobao.
Abilities ART-7 is very inexpensive and fast but doesn’t have the fine-tuned control of Ricky Ye’s HCR10 robot (批草图热点). Its onboard Android smartphone does, however, lend it a camera, accelerometer and GPS.
Odds of victory ‘It only took three days to build but its success will depends on how much time I have to programme and debug it.’


Builder Lutz Michaelis, 47, a technical translator from Germany
Experience Michaelis's father taught him how to solder and helped him build a sound generator when he was ten. He’s also built robots before.
'Bot construction Remote controlled VW Beetle (70RMB), ultrasound sensors (35RMB each) and an Arduino microcontroller (125RMB), all bought from Taobao.
Abilities Beetleduino is programmed to keep a specified distance from the right side wall and avoids obstacles by steering to the left.
Odds of victory ‘Of course I'm going to win the race.’


Builder Ricky Ye, 32, a robotics engineer from Taiwan
Experience Inspired by Star Wars, Ricky studied robotics at Nottingham University in the UK. His first robot was called NAMR, the Nottingham Autonomous Mobile Robot.
'Bot construction Offroad skateboard wheels from Taobao (25RMB each), two motors from a motor shop (140RMB each), two Arduino micro controllers (180RMB each) and a custom-manufactured aluminium casing, including bump sensors (1,600RMB). It took three people three months of weekend work to design and build the HCR10.
Abilities One of the most perceptive robots in the field, HCR10 has three bump sensors, eight Sharp infrared sensors (95RMB each) and a baby monitor Ye got from a friend (600RMB). He chose the baby monitor, rather than another kind of video camera, because of its snappy frame rate – 30fps. Ye believes his robot’s obstacle avoidance algorithm is more intelligent, allowing the HCR10 to select better alternative routes than its opponents.
Odds of victory ‘Of course, it will be us.’

Hoverbot Hubert

Builder Paul Adams, 28, a ‘pixel mover’ from Shanghai
Experience ‘I’ve always liked robotics and material hacking, but this is my first time building something tangible.’
'Bot construction A toy hovercraft from Taobao (88RMB) and an Arduino microcontroller from Xinchejian (180RMB).
Abilities Hoverbot Hubert has a high top speed and amphibious capability. Unfortunately for Adams, there are no water obstacles in this race.
Odds of victory ‘Mine will smash everyone out the way, approach the finish line, veer off-course, and head back to the start line. Or just hit a wall, catch on fire and burn the audience.’


Builder David Li, 39, a software engineer from Taiwan
Experience To entertain their kids, Li and his friends decided to teach them some drag and drop computer programming. They later decided to move on to robots. He co-founded Xinchejian with Min Lin Hsieh and her husband, Ricky Ng-Adam.
'Bot construction ‘This is a FIRA robot (200RMB), the standard used in robot soccer and sumo matches, that I got from a friend. So far I’ve spent about five hours on it. It’s pretty straightforward.’
Abilities Soccerbot only has 15 degrees of vision, but it has a tight turning circle for scouring the scene. It has a single ultrasound sensor, but David plans to increase its brain power by eventually linking it to his iPhone.
Odds of victory ‘To win the race it’ll need another sensor. I think speed-wise Ricky Ng-Adam’s robot probably has the advantage.’

See our event listing for more details.

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