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Jedi Wars: high-flying stunts at gesture-control robotics competition

"We crashed a lot of times"

Hong Shen, Hongjing Yang, MingFei Wang and Junqian Zhang with Space Channel host Morgan Hoffman (photo by Roberta Baker)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—well, actually, last week on the University of Toronto’s St. George campus – speed and stunts worthy of the Millenium Falcon wowed the crowd at the first Jedi Wars flying robotics competition.

Fourth-year undergraduate students in The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) put their gesture-controlled drones to the test in a battle that displayed their skills in programming, piloting, teamwork and creativity.

With the flick of a wrist, Silverio Miranda sent a drone soaring high in the air, flipping and rotating with ease. But he didn’t use The Force – he piloted his gesture-controlled quadcopter with hand and arm movements.

The four teams in the competition – Team AFK, Team Freedom, Team Goose and Team Roar – spent the past year designing and writing unique gesture-input programs to control the drones, and practicing precision piloting. Energy was high ahead of this, their first event, a talent competition, designed to show off original stunts and manoeuvres.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Xiabo Zhang,  pilot for Team Goose. “We have a secret weapon we’re going to bring out; we’ll see if it works.”

Professor Parham Aarabi acted as faculty advisor to all four teams, helping them hone their skills over the course of the year.

“They’ve come up with a lot of interesting aerial tricks and new manoeuvres we haven’t seen before,” said Aarabi. “My prediction of who would win this competition has changed continuously throughout the year.”

Team AFK took top prize in the talent competition, stunning the audience by performing precision spins and flips about 10 metres off the ground. This earned them a five-second head start during the time trial race, after which teams were ranked from first to fourth before proceeding straight into semi-finals, then the bronze and gold-medal matches.

Jedi Wars Flying Robotics Competition from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

Speed and efficient flying won Team Roar the gold medal. Each member of Team Roar took home a Leap Motion Controller, a device that lets you interact with your computer, robots and smart devices by moving your hands and fingers in the air – translating your motions into precise 3D input. Silver-medal winners Team AFK also earned prizes from Leap Motion and Team Freedom won the glory of bronze.

“I think we deserved this win because it’s been a long process, a lot of late nights,” said Team Roar’s Junqian Zhang.

“We focused on developing good tricks for the talent portion, but that was really time-consuming,” added Ming Fei Wang. “We crashed a lot of times.”

Aarabi has hosted robotics competitions before, but never with flying robots.

“This was about students using their own imaginations to see what they can do with some really cool technology,” he said. “It was great to see so many people enthusiastic about the projects, and to see the students having fun.”

Stay tuned for a segment about Jedi Wars on the Space Channel television show InnerSpace – cameras were on hand to interview all four teams and film the fierce competition.

See more photos from Jedi Wars 2014.

Marit Mitchell is a writer with the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto.