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Alfred Alexander

Alfred Alexander heads up the Robot Fighting League (RFL) Committee at Leeds University. He’s doing a great job of promoting the IET, engineering and robotics on site… and beyond.

Now halfway through a four-year integrated Masters degree in Mechatronics and Robotics, Alfred is an IET On Campus volunteer on the committee of ShockSoc, the Electronics and Engineering Society that’s open to all undergraduates and postgraduates at Leeds University, including those on relevant courses and hobbyists.

The RFL has been organised by ShockSoc since 2016. Styled on the hugely popular television programme Robot Wars, it stages two events a year, enabling robot-fighting enthusiasts to send their mechanical creations into battle in a specially adapted arena at the university’s Pyramid Theatre.

Skills development

The league is sponsored by IET On Campus, Labman Automation and the FDM software group. The funding enables the committee to keep improving its events, while spreading the STEM message to a diverse audience. In fact, in February 2020 the committee went even further, by organising an exciting STEM outreach project: a Junior RFL for local sixth-formers.

“We pool the funding from our sponsors,” said Alfred. “We put it to good use, including staging bigger and better events; providing a £50 grant to new competitors who are looking to build their first robot; purchasing equipment; hiring venues; renting lighting, to produce a spectacular effect; and livestreaming the events.”

The IET On Campus funding is entirely fitting because taking part in the RFL gives competitors opportunities to acquire important practical skills that may not be part of their course. Alfred said: “For many competitors, university learning is about concepts, theory and mathematics. They won’t have had a lot of time to experiment, explore new areas of technology and pick up new techniques.

“Competing in the RFL gives them a chance to go through the full design process: from concept and drawings to selecting and buying components, then putting them all together to make something that will hopefully work.

“The prospect of building a robot can be intimidating, so we run Skills Development Labs and training sessions, to help teams enhance their knowledge and skills. It’s a huge and enjoyable learning experience that’s also very much based on teamwork. It’s looks great on a CV and provides plenty to talk about during a job interview!”

Meticulous preparation

The events are always planned by the committee with great attention to detail and a big focus throughout on safety. “It all starts in June,” said Alfred. “We book the Pyramid Theatre and some additional rooms for the events that are due to take place during the next academic year.

“Once everyone returns to university in September, we run a number of ‘Give It a Go’ sessions, designed to generate interest among first- and second-year students, as well as returning competitors. We book a lecture theatre for the night and tell them all about what’s involved and the basics of building robots. It’s a great chance for people to get together and form teams.

“We have to complete health and safety risk assessments, to satisfy the requirements of the Student Union. We also book a crew from Leeds Student Union TV, so that the competition can be professionally filmed and live-streamed, including a commentator and interviews.”

In 2020 the RFL attracted two teams from Lancaster University for the first time, so Alfred arranged a special ‘Give It a Go’ session at the Pyramid Theatre, to help them prepare for battle. Ahead of the March 2020 event, the committee also built a ‘weapons testing area’ – a reinforced box in which robot weapons can be safely trialled during development – and redesigned parts of the arena battleground.

A week or two before the event, each team brings its robot along for inspection and routine safety checks by the committee. Alfred said: “Most robots are unfinished at that stage, so we review the design and give them some advice on last-minute adjustments to their design. We have to make sure that each robot has a safety cut-out link so that it can be disabled entirely if something goes wrong – we must know where that link is.”

The big day

Members of the ShockSoc and RFL committees – usually around 12 in total – are always on hand throughout the events. The March 2020 spectacular attracted 11 teams (around 30 competitors), an audience of over 160 at the Pyramid Theatre’s robot arena and a further 160+ live stream viewers.

“The essence of RFL is that it’s not just a competition; it’s very much a fun, collaborative endeavour,” said Alfred. “It’s important to create a programme that will produce an exciting and entertaining spectacle. To pull together a balanced fight schedule, we have to consider the qualities of each robot – ranging from the fearsome Sumo fighting machine to a nunchuck-waving, wooden Bruce Lee and an imaginative green robot called Kermit. It’s a lot of work!”

The league competition has four stages: two preliminary rounds, a semi-final and a final. At each stage, the robots fight in the arena for three minutes, during which time they must attempt to immobilise their adversaries, perhaps by shunting them onto the ‘Pit and Spike Wall’ or by shattering their frame completely. But it’s not just the victors who proceed to the next stage: after rounds one and two, the losers compete in an aptly named ‘Redemption Rumble’, the winner of which gets a free pass to the next stage.

“The events always involve last-minute changes and March 2020 was no exception,” said Alfred. “Using a spreadsheet that we affectionately call ‘The Monster’, the director and I had to think quickly and make decisions based on incoming news about which robots were (or were not) ready for battle – maintaining effective, prompt communication between committee members throughout the event was vital.”

Measures of success

The March 2020 event was a big hit, with large numbers of competitors, attendees and live stream viewers. But the numbers aren’t the only measure of success, of course. Alfred said: “Success is also about attracting newcomers, to ensure the longevity of the RFL, so we were really pleased to welcome three enthusiastic first-year teams to our latest event.

“It’s about acquiring skills too. I have developed so many new skills through my involvement in the RFL. How to lead and motivate people, teamwork, planning, decision making, communication… all of these will be very useful in the world of work.”

Three IET Young Professionals representatives attended the March 2020 event – Lydia Vaton, Lizzie Truett and Edward Smith – along with Matthew Buckley from the IET Yorkshire Local Network. “Having that strong link and collaboration with the IET helps makes us look professional,” said Alfred.

“The IET has been a great facilitator and I’m sure this will continue when I’m in industry and looking for help to become chartered and move my career forward. I have a feeling I’ll be getting heavily involved in IET events and outreach work after university!”


Interested in IET On Campus and how you can get involved?  Visit On Campus on our website.