Amazing Robot Mice

Robots are rushing off the production lines to fill all sorts of niches previously filled by people or animals. It’s almost a month ago (November 8th to be exact) that I posted about the swarms of robot trashcans descending on young children with the dual purpose of cleaning up the streets and training the kids to be tidy. Not all robots have been produced with such high minded ideals, though.

An animal that has long been the focus to be robotically simulated is the mouse. What do you do with a robotic mouse? Well, you do what a lot of cognitive scientists have long done with live mice, that is, you put them in a maze.

The 32 All Japan Micromouse Championship was run last month in Tsukuba. The suffix “micro” is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the mice are a little larger than computer mice. More the size of a small rat really, so they would be better classified as “Mini-Mouse”, but that name may have gender and IP implications in spite of the spelling.

The competition is very mouse-lab-like in that the mice are placed in a large maze. They have an orientation run where they scurry around digitizing the layout and then they get down to serious business. This consists of a series of timed runs with the winner being declared the Big Cheese who gets through the maze in the least time.

Clearly going down blind alleys is bad and going too fast can mean crashes, which negate that run. The big news this year is that the speed record was broken with the winner clocking a time of 3.921 seconds (1). Previously the 4-second barrier looked uncrackable, but Ng Beng Kiat’s micromouse, Min 7, pushed through the pain barrier of a bug in his algorithm and cracked it to take 1st place. A photo library of the winner is available on Ng’s website (2).

Ning5 is also from the Ng Beng Kiat stable and came second in the half-size micromouse event after having had to cope with the same algorithmic bug. Ng and his stable comes from Singapore. He works at the Alpha Center there and robot mice kits are available to help get aspiring trainers started. The competition circuit is world wide and the beasties are easier to transport than horses.

I’m left with one idle thought. Surely a much smaller version of a micromouse shouldn’t be saddled with such a name as a “half-size micromouse,” but should have a proper title of its own.   Maybe “Nanomouse” would fit the current fetish for all things nano.


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