The 'Rowbot' Race: Cambridge challenges Oxford to a new regatta using student built robots

Luke Mintz
The rowbot race - REUTERS

Since 1829, The Boat Race has pitted the best rowers from Oxford and Cambridge against one another in an annual regatta watched by millions.

But now a team of Cambridge students have invented a robot they think can better human athletes -  and have challenged their rivals to compete in a new high-tech event: The “Rowbot” Race.

Over the past eight months, a team of engineers, comprising five students from Peterhouse College, have created a machine which mirrors a human’s rowingtechnique.

Provided with a budget of just £500, the students have fused their new contraption with a renovated scull boat built in 1969, and are now testing it on the River Cam.

Dr Andre Rosendo, a research associate in engineering and leader of the project, said that future versions of the machine will easily beat Olympic rowers.

And in a moment of institutional rivalry, he laid down a challenge to Oxford University’s engineers, whom he doubts are capable of matching the speed and design of their finely-tuned machine.

“Like Cambridge, Oxford is not necessarily famous for robotics,”he continued. “But it’s a very new field and students need the incentive to start working on these projects, so this sort of competition could foster a higher knowledge of robotics.”

“But I don’t know if they could handle us.”

Dr Rosendo added that he had felt compelled to design the robot after the idea was mooted to him by the former master of Peterhouse, Adrian Dixon, during a college dinner.

Whilst a competition raced by machines may not appeal to traditionalists, the Cambridge engineers are hopeful that it could one day feature alongside the famous Thames regatta - and will go someway to encouraging school students to pursue STEM subjects.

Should their challenge be accepted, Cambridge is confident that their superiority on the water - which currently stands at 82 wins to Oxford’s 80 in the men’s race - will be extended.

The Boat Race

As for Dr Rosendo, he admits that the project has turned him into something of a minor celebrity.

"Cambridge is a fairly small city, and there’s only one river … when you do something like this, especially in the rowing community, people are very enthusiastic about it,” he continued.

It has also earned the praise of Bridget Kendall, the current Peterhouse master, who said she was “delighted” with the team’s invention.

“With characteristic enthusiasm, Andre enlisted other members of the college to help with the project and also got involved in the Peterhouse Boat House, as he argued he had to learn how to row himself first, before he could get a machine to do it,” she added.

Established in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth, of Christ Church college Oxford, The Boat Race remains the world’s most popular regatta.

Upwards of 250,000 people watch the race from the banks of the River Thames each year, whilst a further 15 million watch the event live on television.