6 min read

Robotics competitions have evolved from the time I participated in themduring my college days. Thanks to microboards such as the Raspberry Pi, it’s much more accessible – it could quite literally be described as ‘child’s play’. Mike Horne, the organizer of PiWars and co-organiser of CamJam, alongside his friend Tim Richardson, has taken his close connection to the Raspberry Pi project to inspire tech fans and hackers of all ages.

PiWars is unique- it’s not just about knocking over your combatant’s robot, or following the terrain, it’s about the entire learning and development process.I was lucky enough to get to talk to Michael about PiWars, robotics and the immense popularity of Raspberry Pi.

What kick-started PiWars and CamJam?

CamJam started because I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a Raspberry Jam in the Pi’s home town. There had been a couple of Cambridge Jams but they stopped quite early. I resurrected it by starting small (with just 30 people in one room) and it’s grown from there. Tim Richardson came onboard as co-planner after my second Jam and encouraged me to get a larger venue where we could run workshops as well as talks. We now work hand-in-hand to make the events as good as possible.

PiWars was Tim’s idea. We both fondly remember the television programme ‘Robot Wars’ and he wondered whether we couldn’t do something similar, but with challenges instead of ‘fights’. And it all went from there.

What sets PiWars’ apart from other robotics challenge? What is your vision 2020?

What sets it apart first of all is that it is ‘non-destructive’. Although we used the name PiWars, no robots are intentionally damaged. We believe this is key to the enjoyment of the competitors as it means their good work isn’t destroyed. Apart from that, the use of the Raspberry Pi makes it unique – each robot must have a Pi at its core.

When was the last time you competed in a robotics challenge or created a robot?

I’ve personally never competed in a robotics challenge – the opportunities just haven’t been there. I did actually go and see Robot Wars being filmed once, which was exciting! I created a robot about two weeks ago whilst preparing for the launch of CamJamEduKit 3. It’s a robotics kit that’s available from The Pi Hut for £17 and contains everything you need to build a robot except batteries and a chassis (although the box it comes in makes a really good chassis!)

You guys did a great job in organising thePiWars, CamJam and RaspberryPi birthday party. What are the challenges you faced, and ideas you came up with?

Mostly the challenge is two-fold: 1. Persuading people to come and do talks, help with workshops and give general help on the day. 2. Logistics – it takes a lot of paperwork, spreadsheets and checklists to run an event on this scale.

It’s always about working out what scale of event you want to run. CamJam is pretty steady now as we’ve got a structure. Pi Wars, being the second year, has expanded and changed organically. For The Big Birthday Weekend we came up with the idea of having two lots of workshops running at the same time as two lots of talks.

Ideas-wise, we use beer to get things kicked off J. Tim’s great with coming up with new ways to make the events better. The Marketplace area was his idea. Show-and-Tell was mine. It’s a great collaboration.

Not everyone could participate/physically be present in such competitions, do you think hosting a virtual competition though skype can be possible?

We did consider it last year, actually! Someone from Australia wanted to send his robot via freight and control it over the Internet. We didn’t think that would work due to technical limitations.

The main problem with holding a virtual competition is: where do you put the challenge courses? Do you have them in one location and then have robots remote-controlled or do you have the competitors recreate the courses in their location somehow? Then, how do you deal with the video streaming to spectators?

How can robotics be taught in an effective manner with limited resources? How do you think Packt is contributing?

The main barrier to entry with robotics is not the cost of equipment, although that does play a part. The main barrier is lack of material to support the learning. It’s one of the things we’ve concentrated on with the EduKits – good, solid resource worksheets. Packt have been doing a great job by publishing several books which contain at least an element of robotics, and sometimes by devoting entire publications to the subject.

You may have seen some of our books mentioned in the MagPi, but do you use books to learn about Raspberry Pi yourself?

I do. I’ve learned a lot of the basics from Adventures in Raspberry Pi (by Carrie Anne Philbin) and use Alex Bradbury and Ben Everard’s Python book as a reference. I’ve also looked at several Packt publications for inspiration for Raspberry Pi projects.

Complete these sentences…

Robotics challenge is not about smashing, it is… about learning how to give your robot the skills it needs.

PiZero is…incredibly cute and brings a lot of hope for the future of embedded and IoT Raspberry Pi projects.

Code quality, build quality, aesthetics and blogging is not just to rank the robot, it helps to… focus the minds of the competitors in building the best robot they can.

My favourite Raspberry Pi project… at the moment is probably the S.H.I.E.L.D.-inspired ‘den’ I blogged about recently. Long-term, I really like Dave Akerman’s work on getting pictures from near-space using high-altitude balloons with a Pi and camera module.

My words of wisdom for young hacker are… “Don’t be limited by anything, not even your imagination. Push yourself to come up with new and interesting things to do, and don’t be afraid to take someone else’s idea and run with it.”

This or That-

  1. Tea or coffee? Coffee
  2. Linux or Python? Both
  3. GeekGurl or RaspberryPi Guy? They’re both friends – I’m not landing myself in hot water for that one!
  4. Terminators or Transformers? Transformers, but the ones from the 1980s, not Michael Bay’s questionable version!
  5. Raspberry Pi or BBC micro:bit? Raspberry Pi, all the way. The micro:bit just doesn’t do enough to really stretch youngsters.

We’re big fans of DIY tech at Packt – like Raspberry Pi, we’re passionate about innovation and new ideas. That’s why from Monday 7th to Sunday 13th December we’re celebrating Maker Week. We’re giving away free eBooks on some of the world’s most exciting microcomputers – including Raspberry Pi and Arduino – and offering 50% off some of our latest guides to creative tech.


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