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Switchback And AMD Bring AI To BattleBots

In this new age of autonomous machines, autonomous robots are rapidly becoming commonplace in factories worldwide for everything from materials handling to manufacturing. Vehicles are moving closer to becoming fully autonomous, but the appearance of full autonomy for competition robots has been very limited. At the high-school level, robots competing in FIRST Robotics Competitions for students incorporate some level of autonomy, but most points scored during the user-controlled period of the competition.

For those not familiar with FIRST, the acronym means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” FIRST is an international youth organization that operates competitions for various ages to inspire students to learn more about and get more involved with science and engineering. Having been involved in FIRST competitions myself, I can attest to the value for students. Autonomy has been non-existent in the world of BattleBots, an internationally televised competition between armored robots in an enclosed arena. One could argue that the fun of BattleBots is controlling the robot to utterly destroy the opposing robot. But if Artificial Intelligence (AI) can improve many things, why not use it in BattleBots? Now a relatively new BattleBots team named Switchback is bringing AI to the BattleBot arena.

The Switchback team was formed by the founders of REV Robotics, a company that makes robotics components used by students for learning and competing in FIRST Robotics Competitions. The founders themselves competed in FIRST competitions and have now set their sights on BattleBots. The team used a traditional robotics model for its first version of the Switchback robot, with limited success, but the team optimistically called their first foray into the BattleBots arena a “learning experience.” Now the Switchback team is working is working on a future version of their namesake BattleBot that leverages vision-assisted AI to aim the robot toward the competitor rather than relying on the human operator to drive the robot. This leaves the human free to focus on attacking its competitor with Switchback’s formidable kinetic weaponry.

To accomplish the move towards autonomous driving, the Switchback team is leveraging the AMD-Xilinx KV260 Vision AI Starter Kit and Kria SOM (System-on-Module) with the AMD-Xilinx Vitis AI tools. The team has been able to quickly develop AI models for identification and tracking using just a few limited images of some of the competing robots.

Reasons for choosing the AMD-Xilinx solutions include the fully integrated package, the abundance of I/O, and the fact that the platform was already hardened for industrial applications. Another deciding factor was the group’s long history and familiarity with the AMD-Xilinx platform. AMD-Xilinx has long supported FIRST Robotics Competitions and has been part of the NI (formerly National Instruments) robotics platform used for these competitions since 2009. Seeing at least one BattleBot adopt a similar platform further demonstrates the value of investing in the education of future engineers and the value of AMD-Xilinx’s long-term investment in robotics and autonomous machines.

While Switchback’s limited use of AI is still far removed from some of Hollywood’s depictions of AI-powered battling robots, it is a step in that direction, and one that is sure to bring more excitement to the BattleBots arena. And with Rev Robotics’ support for FIRST, what they learn in BattleBots is likely to find its way into future FIRST platforms and competitions. While gaming has eclipsed most physical sports for viewership over the past several years, there is still some thrill in seeing physical competitions, whether it involves chaos and destruction or simply engaging strategy and teamwork. If you haven’t been to a FIRST or BattleBots competition, you don’t know what you are missing. They are both exciting and inspiring.

There is video on the REV Robotics Team and its partnership with AMD-Xilinx on the Xilinx website.