Written by Hajir Almahdi
When Libyan youth from across the country gathered to compete in the first robotics championship hosted by Hexa Connection, it’s clear that something has captured their interest in the matter. But it is about more than just having a foundational knowledge of engineering and robotics, where the games are designed to specifically encourage participants to think critically, synthesize information and sharpen their teamwork and communication skills. The National Robotics Championship (NRC) is a national competition for youth aging from 16 to 30 years old, its goal to engage participants in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The teams are expected to devise creative solutions to difficult problems, work as a team, learn sportsmanship, communicate effectively, and most importantly build leadership skills.
Much of the economic and social progress of the past few centuries have been due to technology. Technology has been central to both economic growth and many elements of social welfare, Libya’s current degrading economic scene has diverted Libyans’ attention to the change technology can bring and the opportunities it can create.
Hexa Connection, the organizers of the NRC participated as judges in the Arab Robotics Association Competition that took place in Jordan with the apparent absence of Libyan participation. Ever since hosting a local competition has been up in the air. Since 2016, Hexa has been toying around with the idea of hosting robotics championship in Libya, on the local scale. Hexa spent a lot of time searching for sponsors to visualize their dream, until finally this year, they got the sponsorship of Tatweer Research and Libya Institute for Advanced Studies to organize the first national robotics competition.
The team was skeptical about the interest that competition harness in Libya, for different reasons, they assumed lack of general interest and knowledge in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). In addition, they anticipated that high school students have minimum exposure to such fields. Workshops prior the championship were held in educational institutions to raise public attention in various cities, Misrata, Benghazi, Houn, Tripoli and Sebha.
The organizers anticipated that 25 teams might apply maximum and that would be an optimistic figure. To their surprise, the competition has sparked interest of different segments of youth, where they had to change the minimum age of participation from 16 to 13 just to give everyone who had applied a chance in participating. More than 55 teams participated in the NRC, each team consisting of two to three people, with an overall of 150 participants. The teams ranged from middle school students, to high school seniors and university graduates. Either advanced competitors or first-timers robot designers, all came with the same goal — to win.
The competition is comprised of three separate categories – Sumo Wrestling competition, Ball Collecting competition and Tracking Robot competition. Participants must build an intelligent robot that recognizes, makes decisions, and moves on its own without continuous human guidance. The Sumo Wrestling competition was the most popular among the participants. The concept is simple, you have two robots competing in an arena, the first to push the other outside the circle is the winner. Easy as it sounds, it’s technically tricky to realize.
Wesam Salem, the NRC Communication Officer said when asked about the effect he witnessed during the competition, it baffled him how in a short time the contestants had demonstrated great talent in designing their robots in addition to witnessing them adjusting and modifying their designs on the ground according to the changing circumstances of the game.
In addition to rewarding prizes, the winners landed internships in different organizations for further developments. Wesam concluded “In Libya, participants might not have as much expertise right now, but they can get used to the competition and really start building on that so by few years’ time, we’ll have more experiences and familiarity with robotics and artificial intelligence. Participating in the competition, they’ve already come up with new ways to improve their designs. It’s about dealing with new, complicated problems.”
These competitions bring attention to youth talents and capabilities, with the increasing focus on technology industry, there is always a need for engineers, scientists and other technically-minded individuals to lead the way to innovation. Robotics competition serve as a great method to show STEM education and encourages important skills like project-based organization (small scale projects), teamwork and communication, and that will sculpt talent and grow careers in the industry.