A team of volunteers help to build the Pi Wars challenge courses (for the 2020 competition) and we manage to recruit an army of Judges and Marshals to help us on the day.
The History of Pi Wars
Pi Wars began as a passing conversation between Tim Richardson and Michael Horne in the year 2013. We realised we were both fans of the BBC TV series Robot Wars and Tim was wondering if we could do something similar with the Raspberry Pi. We decided that we wanted a different format—a non-destructive challenge-based competition with courses that would test both hardware design and programming skill.
Following several very successful Raspberry Jams at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, our first Pi Wars was in December 2014. The courses were largely unpainted and we balanced several of them on top of our folding Jam tables! We established a tradition that Tim would construct the courses and Mike (whose DIY skills are… lacking) would do all the logistics.
Of the teams that applied, 24 made it to the event and they were categorised according to how much money was spent building the robot. Sumo was our only robot vs robot challenge, but it didn’t
quite work due to relative sizes. Our scoring system was completely manual and resulted in a long delay while we totted everything up! Lessons learned, and popular demand gauged, we decided to run the competition for a second year.
In December 2015, we switched venues to the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, where you are standing now. The courses were much more sophisticated (and painted!) and, for the first time, we featured Pi Noon, the balloon-popping, robot vs robot duel. We had 56 applicants and 31 teams joined us for the one-day competition, which again featured seven challenges, including the newly-redesigned Obstacle Course, Skittles and a Line Follower course that was much more difficult than we had expected!
For the next event, we decided to change the time of year to allow more schools to compete. So, in April 2017, we held Pi Wars 3.0 over two days at the Laboratory. We welcomed a record number of both teams and spectators over the weekend. New challenges for the competition were The Minimal Maze, a tricky autonomous course and remote-controlled challenge Slightly Deranged Golf.
In 2017, we were delighted to welcome a new Head Judge to Pi Wars—Dr Lucy Rogers, then a Robot Wars Judge and now mastermind behind the Guild of Makers. Lucy has joined us for subsequent years and can be found judging our Technical Merit award.
In 2018, we once again broke our record of the number of applications received. We introduced two new challenges: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an autonomous, colour-finding course and The Duck Shoot which featured cute, wooden duck targets into which teams could roll a ball or use custom-made launchers to fire soft ammo.
For the year 2019, we decided to theme the event around the idea of Space Exploration as it is the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings. We received over 150 applications again (a new record), even though we were unable to accept more teams – timetabling 76 groups over that many hours is a tough task! In complete contrast to our first year’s scoring system, this year Tim has created a fully-fledged desktop app to keep track of the scores and total them up. This is in addition to making 90% of the courses in his own Makerspace, Hut 8. As always, the challenges were once again changed as we always like to keep things fresh.
Pi Wars has developed into a truly international competition. Each year, we have welcomed more international teams. In 2019, 11 countries were represented, including, for the first time, all the UK countries.