Robot Contests in the age of COVID

Robot contests can be great ways to learn practical lessons in the spirit of competition… but what do they look like now that COVID is here?

In the before time…

Contests give direction, encourage teamwork and planning, and create real-world situations where the lessons from school directly solve the problems at hand. Pre-COVID they often culminated in large gatherings of students, teachers, parents, and hobbyists looking for a winner, looking to meet like minds, looking to share ideas and experience.

Typical robot contests are things like “pick up as many balls off the floor as possible and deliver them to waiting baskets. more points for tricky baskets.”

Really practical stuff that means something to the youth of the world, right?

Just add COVID!

With the introduction of COVID a lot of that goes into the recycling. Bubbles of people can still meet to work on building machines or writing code, of course. Large gatherings aren’t a thing, so judging competitions and having regional or national meetups is a no-go.

So: our limitations are that participants cannot get together but their robots can.

Adapt and overcome

To that end, I’m thinking about a contest where cube-sat sized robots are launched (mailed) to the moon (the contest HQ). On arrival they

  • establish communication (connect to known closed wifi at destination, +3 star)
  • deploy (remove self from container, +1 star)
  • complete some task by remote (see further down)
  • returning to packaging (+1 star)
  • return to mission control (+1 star)

I’d give high marks for arriving in one piece and even doing the first job because anyone who’s ever shipped a thing they hand-made knows how wrong that can go. Pre-COVID I would always tell FIRST robotics teams to put their machine in a box, in a van, and then roughly drive it around for a day to see what falls off.

It is a pet peeve of mine that teams seem to split between engineers (90%) and financiers (10%), and almost no attention to PR/marketing. So:

  • a blog with their plan (+1 coin)
  • a budget (+1 coin)
  • launching on or under budget (+2 coin)
  • progress reports (+1 coin/10 posts)

This mirrors development of a real world project as might be seen in a venture capital startup: they have a runway (launch window) and a business plan (sketch of how to make robot). with these two things they’ll have a much easier time asking their friends & family for funds (Dragon’s Den/Kickstarter style presentation). It also encourages people not in robotics to become fans and helps those students reputation. At least one robot company will be hunting for talent! And here’s a dirty secret, younglings: the people who make good documentation and PR become the most well known, which translates directly into future opportunities.

Wait, what’s this stars vs coin thing?

If you’ve ever played Mario Party then you know what I’m talking about. Stars are worth an infinite number of coins. One star always beats any number of coins …but if two teams have the same number of stars then it’s the coins that make the difference!

So… what does this robot do on the moon?

You should have the freedom to change the goals over time to keep it fresh. I’m not organizing the contest, I’m only proposing a framework into which a goal can be injected. I strongly recommend the goal be theme-appropriate. Ideas include:

  • There is a sandbox and loose bricks. Make a shelter and park inside.
  • There is a 10 foot pole with three ropes attached. Anchor and raise the antennae.
  • Use the cameras on your robot and open source software at mission control to build a point-cloud/3D map of the area.
  • Collect a sample for return to Mission Control (3D printed trophy?)
  • Germinate a plant (this would take a while)


In my dreams each robots – in their shipping package – should be some multiple of cube satellite size (10x10x10 cm). This mirrors real world shipping constraints (especially to the moon!) and keeps life simple for the contest organizers. In a more practical reality, contestants are already “punished” by the cost of shipping each robot, so there’s no need to deduct or add points for that.

The moon is an airless rock so no flying drones and no submersibles.

LiPo batteries should not be shipped in the mail.

There has yet to be a war on the moon and we’re not about to start so no weapons, projectiles, or deliberate maliciousness.

Final thoughts

Not every task needs to be completed. If your robot can’t get out of a box by itself (or ship without a box), just let the judges know you’re not trying to reach for that star. No harm, no foul. Same goes for being already-on at arrival or any of the other tasks.

If you should run this contest, we’d love some mention/like/tag etc.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s keep this discussion going.