Vecna to host robot, human races

running robot 1

Robots, on your mark.

This spring, Vecna Technologies, a developer of electronic health record systems, will hold a 5K run for humans starting at its Cambridge office and winding around the city. But the company is extending an invitation to local robots that can cut a 100-meter dash.

People and bots will race on separate tracks. But racing teams can be composed of humans and robots, and team points will reflect the performance of both.

On an L-shaped track on Vecna’s campus, robots are welcome to hop, fly, roll, crawl, or gallop to the finish line. Besides clearing the distance, the only other requirement will be to stop by the “water station” on the way and pick up a Dixie cup filled with confetti.

Vecna holds an annual 5K race in College Park, Md. “We were thinking, ‘What kind of flavor can we have here?’ and, you know, robots is so obvious,” cofounder Deborah Theobald said.

Theobald hopes the Cambridge event will showcase the variety of robots that New England companies are building. But she also wants to create an educational opportunity and encourage schools and colleges to send teams.

“I think it’s a terrific idea,” said Joyce Sidopoulos, manager of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council’s Robotics Cluster, which supports robotics companies and startups in the state. “To actually, physically see a robot doing something, it may click in a kid’s mind: ‘Maybe that’s something I want to work on.’”

In the weeks leading up to the April 12 event, Vecna will hold three workshops for race attendees. Teams can bring their robots to Vecna engineers, who will prepare them for the race.

Until March 15, team registration costs $20 per person and $20 per robot. For student teams, the cost covering each is $15. For extra points, participants are invited to wear their favorite robot costume and run in that.

One confirmed contender is vGo, a camera-carrying telepresence robot on wheels that lets people remotely navigate an office space or hospital while interacting with people through its display screen.

“The odds of us winning? Pretty slim. I’d handicap us pretty low,” said Tom Ryden, founder and chief executive at the Nashua, N.H., company. Still, the educational goal of the race motivated Ryden to enter his indoor bot in an outdoor race.

Theobald plans to use money raised from the Boston race to support two projects headed by Vecna Cares, the company’s philanthropic arm.

The projects include an effort to bring electronic health records to the Trans Mara district in Kenya, linking 44 clinics with the one district hospital in the area, and allow all centers to go paperless.

Vecna also hopes to use some of the money to help refine the design of its portable electronic health records database. The “CliniPak” can fit in a suitcase, obtain power from solar chargers or car batteries, and set up a local wireless network to cover a medical compound. Vecna hopes to cut the size and weight of the instrument by half.

Most race participants have yet to be announced, but a favorite among the locally designed robots would be Boston Dynamics’s Cheetah. It has run faster than Olympian Usain Bolt’s top speed, sprinting 29 miles per hour on a treadmill. However, tethered to a power cord, it’s unlikely to be ready to race.

Cheetah’s cordless cousin, WildCat, can hit 16 miles per hour and would be sure to leave some of the competition in the dust.

The Dixie cup pickup would be a breeze for the agricultural robots made by Harvest in Billerica, which are trained to pick up and carry plant pots from one location to another. The task would be similarly easy for Baxter, Rethink Robotics Inc.’s handy bot.

IRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner is unlikely to break any speed records but would be poised to make a clean sweep of the track.

Image: iStockphoto

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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