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Atom boys and Railgun: Story of a university student and his combat robot

By Jiang Jie (People's Daily Online)    14:59, May 22, 2018

When it comes to combat robots, many extol gigantic and menacing weapons as symbols of power. In the games of iron vs. steel, audiences hail metallic sparks when two armored bulks conduct the complete OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, and act) with delicate and swift precision to dodge blows and fiercely ramming into a robot with a long-expected bam.

But for Tong Zhaodong, the biggest secret of weaponry does not lie in axes or hammers.

“It’s just the transfer of energy,” Tong explained in an interview with People’s Daily.

Twenty-one-year-old Tong has just won the fourth place title at this year’s RoboGames, which was held in the US state of California from April 27 to 29. It was a victory for Tong and for China, because it was the first time China has been invited to this Olympics-like competition for combat robots.

(Photo courtesy of FMB)

“Spinner works better than say an axe because an axe can only pass on potential energy, which is also transitional kinetic energy. But spinning can continuously pass on energy from electrical energy,” said Tong.

Tong could not hide his joy when he talked to People’s Daily about his remarkable achievement at RoboGames. His Railgun S, weighing 54 kilograms, claimed two victories against Demolition, a former BattleBots champion, during the three-minute games, when the two metallic bots armed to the teeth whirled and bumped with each other, struggling to rip the other apart.

“This is something I can brag about for a year,” he said with a laugh.

Railgun S, designed and manufactured by Tong, is the third generation of his railgun combat robot. Looking back at the first design in 2017, Tong called his first work “too conservative.” His first combat robot was fully armored, with both wheels tucked inside the purple-painted metal to brace against any attacks aiming to paralyze the whole machine.

(Photo courtesy of Tong Zhaodong)

Though he did good at the first round of China’s first combat robot competition, Major League Fighting My Bots (MLF), in April 2017, Tong recalls his armored machine getting hung up and beaten badly by a former RoboGames champion during the major league world cup tournament.

He then began to upgrade his design by shifting the focus from defense to offense, making his robot more agile and aggressive instead of evasive in full armor.

For the third version of the Railgun S, which defeated Demolition's Nighthawk, Tong proudly introduced that he not only took both wheels out of the protective armor, but even brought out the engine, which was laid on top.

(Photo courtesy of FMB)

“This is a pretty aggressive design, even by Western standards,” said the young man, noting that the exposure reduced the amount of armor and made the machine lighter.

Born into a family of mechanical engineers, Tong, under the influence of his engineer father, always tries out his ideas at home. “My father is my mentor. He is the reason why I am so interested in robotics. He always encourages me to try something or to fix something if there is a problem,” Tong said.

The father-son relationship turned exceptionally eye-catching when the two formed team Atom at RoboGames. The younger Tong played the role of operator and the older Tong played the role of mechanic. “My father just helped a little with final checkups. Nevertheless, his help was invaluable,” said the young man.

Tong, now a junior majoring in robotics at Shanghai University, has won dozens of robotic prizes at home and abroad since he was a student at Shixi Senior High School in Shanghai. His international prize-winning tour started in 2015 when he won the “Chair of Judge Recognition of Achievement Award” at F1 in Schools World Finals in Singapore for his energy recycle gadget on his hand-made race car. In 2017, his second international prize arrived at TechFest in India when he and his second-generation Railgun got third place.

(Photo courtesy of Tong Zhaodong)

Now he has his sights set on other high-profile combat robot games, including BattleBots in the US, RobotChallenge in the UK, and WinterChallenge in Brazil.

“My generation is lucky as China promotes education for all-round development and more young people like me are given opportunities to explore robotics. My high school, for example, values more than just students’ exam performance,” Tong commented.

“The old focus on exams will only hold us back. Some youth in developed countries are already trying their hand at robotics in their garages at home. Some of them even showed up at RoboGames. Their robots may be crude, but it is a good beginning,” he added.

The garage culture, from which combat robots are rooted, is what breeds the public interest for science and technology. While only a handful of professional players still make their robots by hand, the art of combat robots remains a pursuit for excellence. In the words of Tong, it is a continuous pursuit that pushes mechanics to the extreme, just like Formula 1 and aerospace technology.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Jiang Jie, Bianji)

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