Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest Tips


by John Piccirillo

The search for a KILLER APP narrows quickly when we talk about robots that can autonomously search your house for a fire, then extinguish the flame. At Trinity College in Hartford, CT, April 19th & 20th, we saw contestants from around the world do just that.

This was a speed race inside a maze, looking for and extinguishing a candle. It was the largest, public, true robotics competition held in the U.S. that is open to entrants of any age, ability or experience from anywhere in the world. Contestants included rocket scientists, college professors & students (even 3d graders).

Here are some general tips. Come back next week for specific WINNING designs.

  1. Start Early
    – This is especially important if you’re fairly new to designing and building mobile robots or are working alone with little outside support. First time competitors should allow five or six months to design, build, and test their robot.
  2. Read The Rules Carefully
    – This contest has both bonus and penalty scoring provisions. The rules define the competition arena and robot limitations, and, more importantly, information to help plan your strategy. The most recent rules are available here. Updated rules are usually posted about September. Registrants receive announcements and rule modification notices.
  3. View Videos Of Past Contests
    – Maybe I’m a nut, but I watched each video many times. They show the large variety of robots that will be at the contest and the problems that plague them. Videos are available from Jake Mendelssohn for $25 each. You can write to Jake at
  4. Be Flexible
    – Some good ideas just won’t work. I tried three different drive systems before I was satisfied with my third-year entry Marv-96.
  5. Keep It Simple
    – I’ve seen robot contestants with embedded an 386 computer or even an entire laptop mounted onboard. This is needless overkill, extra weight, and complicates your programming. Use what you’re comfortable with. Mega computing power is not required. The first-year winner had a Basic Stamp I with a total of 256 bytes of memory! Also try to keep your platform open so that you can reach all the components for testing, adjusting, and replacing.
  6. Design and Test Each Module
    – There are essentially five separate design areas for this contest: the navigation system, the flame detection sensor system, the flame extinguisher, the computer, and the software. A sound activation system is optional, but improves your score. I bread-boarded and tested the flame detector, extinguisher, and sound activation modules independently.
  7. Test, Test, and Test Again
    – It’s essential to build a good replica of the contest arena for testing. I’ve built three of them, and finally have one that I’m satisfied with. The sides and walls are constructed from shelving stock that’s made of 3/4″ thick, white plastic coated pressboard. Even though it comes in 8′ sections, the length of the maze outside walls, I cut it so that no piece is longer than 4′ for easy storage. I use 1/4″ hardboard cut into 4′ square pieces for the floor. The hardboard is less expensive, easier to store and move than plywood and, best of all, lies flat. Before entering the 96 contest, I ran Marv through the maze 100 times, testing various sensors, flame extinguishers, and search strategies.
  8. Plan To Make Last Minute Adjustments
    – The contest area is open a full day, 9 to 9, the day before the contest to allow contestants a chance to have practice runs in the robot mazes that will be used during the contest. Don’t miss this opportunity. There will be some features of the contest environment that will be unknown in advance, so it’s a good idea to be prepared to make adjustments before the contest. Some things to check out: the actual dimensions of the maze (plus or minus an inch from the diagram furnished in the rules), the ambient light level, and the reflectivity of the maze walls.
  9. Stay Tuned To Robot Magazine
    – Future issues will detail various fire-fighting robot designs.

Personally, from contest High Commander Jake Mendelssohn:

“Every year I get messages from people who said they built a robot, but since they knew it wouldn’t win, they didn’t come to the contest. WRONG! The real goal of the contest is to learn and have fun. You can’t do that sitting at home. No matter what your robot does (or doesn’t do), make sure you come to the contest!”

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