When you think of robot wars, chances are you think of the TV show Robot Wars, with remote control cars beating seven kinds of crap out of each other with axes and hammers.

That’s not what real robot competitions are about: follow a white line. Drop a marble at a given point. Detect, stop and beep at a blockage placed by the judge. And so on.

But even this level presents problems: the upfront cost and the relatively restricted range of functions that most of us have to settle for. Microsoft’s online RoboChamps contest can give you access to a simple competitive arena, for free.

Instead of building robots by hand, RoboChamps takes them into a virtual space, with 3D graphics and a full physics engine to simulate environments, such a maze. This immediately opens up the ability to attempt cool challenges that you’d never be able to do in the real world, such as controlling the Mars Rover, or recreating last year’s DARPA Grand Challenge by coding a robot to navigate a busy city.

RoboChamp roboteers, activate!

The most important part, as far as Microsoft is concerned, is that the contest isn’t just a way for long-standing robotics fans to challenge each other. It’s also a way of getting people interested in robot development in the first place. The core software is Microsoft Robotics Development Studio, which hooks into Visual Studio or Visual Studio Express for the heavy lifting. (Visual Studio is free to students, with a demo free for non-students to experiment with.) The scenarios are free to download, with coding starting out as simple as linking blocks of code together and filling in a few text boxes. This isn’t likely to get you all the way to a winning robot, but it’ll get you started.

What makes the prospect of getting to the RoboChamps finals even more exciting is that you’re not simply coding for a 3D model that looks like a robot, but a fully simulated one, including its tools and sensors. Via the software, you can see exactly what your robot is seeing and access any of its systems through simple bits of code.

The league final takes the obvious next step, downloading the winners’ code into actual robots and having them perform for real.

The winners of the maze challenge will walk away with one of three prizes: a CoroWare Corebot worth around £1,700, a Boe-Bot kit worth around £100, or a copy of a book on using Robotics Developer Studio itself (although the winner will presumably know a decent amount already!).

The real thing

You have to get to the end of the full league table to be one of the four finalists who gets to see their code breathe life into the robots at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in October.

Right now, there’s just one league table, but Microsoft hasn’t ruled out a few more themed leagues, such as a students-only competition. Even more ambitious challenges could be on their way too. At the moment, the robots are simply pre-built for each challenge, putting the focus on the coding element rather than designing something from scratch. That could change, perhaps with a challenge such as building a (virtual) bot on a budget.

Of course, you’re not expected to go it alone. The RoboChamps site features plenty of tutorial content to guide you through the early stages of coding virtual robots. Among the most prominent is the Robotics Introductory Courseware, which starts with controlling a robot using a joystick (Xbox 360 pads are supported) before moving on to basic motion, coding a simple game of Mastermind (the one with the coloured pegs, not the trivia quiz), detecting the distance to a particular object and, finally, creating robots that can communicate and co-ordinate more complex functions between them.

Similar support materials are available for the software, which, while simple, can still be intimidating with its terminology. These also extend to other programming tasks of interest, such as making services, sending requests and creating your own simulations within the virtual world. There’s also a forum to post your questions, and more advanced projects such as controlling a robot with the power of your voice. Like this: Robot, end story.