NERC 2014 – I: The Arena

This series of articles are dedicated to degree 33, my mom and dad, and my grandparents who taught me have hope even in the bluest of times, and the will to go on.

This is a tribute to all teams of degree 33 of College of E&ME participating in NERC 2014, who have been a vital part of this journey, and a constant source of inspiration and life in the arena.

7UP                      Parabot                       Toad                Thunderbird                  POV
Black Mamba                 Kronous                      Tamatar                   Gravity                  J-Bot
Jet Jaguars               Rigel                   Invictus

  Hi5

And this is a special tribute to all the unsung heroes of NERC.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami                

 

This is an introduction: a preface before the big bang. A little curtain-raising but not too much. Let’s get this story out because the robots are ready, to roll into –

“…a place or scene of activity, debate, or conflict”

– the arena.

The department of Mechatronics Engineering has a hall. It is situated on the first floor, left of the marble-chip staircase, at the end of the white washed corridor. The hall is as big as that of three average-sized classrooms combined. There are a couple of windows on either side of the hall; some are jammed, some never close. The floor is carpeted and saved by the “Please Remove Your Shoes While [sic] Entry” sign. It is enforced effectively. It saved the carpet alright but managed to make people’s shoes disappear from time to time.

The hall is not the arena, though it boasts the arena with unmistakable pride. In the center of the room there are two wooden mazes – blue and red – built back to back, the either one a reflection of the other such that both of them are exactly the same.
The blue arena is my favorite. The red arena is hell.

The windows on the right overlook the highway of Peshawar Road. It is the only time that I feel containment in this place. The working hours are long and stretchy, yes but not without excitement. Despite that, you feel the irony brush against you as the wind blows into the hall through these very windows and you catch sight of the open road; people and cars speeding by, oblivious to where you are; how you are.

Dark wooden tables and chairs are stacked on either side of the hall. You pick a corner, mark your territory and watch the battles from your desk. But if you’re up around in the hall, you constantly dodge your way. Either it’s from a fiery robot, a person, a stray stool or a half-empty bottle of Sting.

 

It feels like you are on a train station. Waiting for a train. Everybody around you is waiting for the same boarding. We know where we’re going but the destination is nowhere in sight. And while we wait, we talk, we code, we get hit, we talk some more, call it a day and come back here again and start all over. The wait is incessant but we are not impatient. We manage to make do just fine.

 

This year’s theme is a jump from last year’s. It’s strange, slanting and bittersweet. If I am to sum it all up, it goes like this: follow the lights.

Each arena is divided into two zones. Zone 1 consists of the two parallel white lines – the starting point – and leading up to the slot. The Zone 2 starts immediately after the slot to the path leading to the exit of the arena. Both zones have signals which you need to follow unless you want to land yourself a forced retry in the limited 3 crucial minutes you get. It’s like traffic signals with very tempting empty roads.

The robot is required to begin its run at the starting line, follow the path which the green signal indicates at the start, move into the slot, bowl those six bowling pins and move out of the slot.
If you win yourself a strike, you pick any path to run through, right to the exit from the Zone 2 but if don’t win a strike, the robot needs to decide which path to take in Zone 2 indicated by its green signal to successfully exit the arena.

There’s a small catch: every signal in the two zones turn green for ten seconds and red for twenty seconds. There are three paths: A, B and C. The signals turn green in that respectively groovy manner.

Say hello to this beautiful thing.

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Pretty intense, yeah?

The arena can be anything. It is your playground; it is your battle field. It is your friend. It is your enemy. The place doesn’t change. It’s the same when we started our third year and it’s still the same – well, fundamentally – but it changed us forever.

 

The third year in my engineering course is a big deal. Third year or the NERC year, same thing really. This year the 11th annual function of National Engineering Robotic Competition took place in the College in the peak of June’s heat, like it always does. As soon as summer says hello, NERC preparations start to burst in through the department’s corridors, classes and labs. Not to mention the arena. It becomes a magnet, pulling everyone towards itself. You step on the entrance stairs and you can hear the arena.
Eleven years of successful head banging with the robots.
Eleven years of robotic cool.

The arena is where we hang out, all the time. In between classes, weekends, weekdays after 4pm; this is our second home. On many late evenings as I would walk past my department after I’m done, I would look back and see the windows of the arena brightly lit. When every class and every department would retire, it would still glimmer. It would be wide awake.

The arena doesn’t sleep.

The year is 2014. And the arena is alive.