Creating a Chess-Playing Robot to Compete in the French Cup of Robotics

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"This year, we decided to implement an NI sbRIO-9632 device as the brain of the robot. This device presents many benefits for easy implementation in a robot."

- David FREY, IUT1 de Grenoble

The Challenge:
Developing a robot to participate in the French Cup of Robotics 2011 Chess’up! competition.

The Solution:
Using an NI sbRIO-9632 module as the robot’s brain to manage robot sensors and actuators in real time.

David FREY - IUT1 de Grenoble
Jean-Luc AMALBERTI - IUT1 de Grenoble

To participate in the French Cup of Robotics, the Grenoble IUT1 GEII1 and GMP departments developed an autonomous robot based on an NI sbRIO-9632 module. The students designed and developed the whole robot: the mechanical part; sensor and actuator integration (DC motors for robot movements and actuators for the various actuators as the clip); and strategies and program development to score as many points as possible during the competition.

Multidisciplinary, Motivating Student Project

For more than a decade, IUT 1 Grenoble has participated in the French Cup of Robotics. Students who are in at least their second year of University Diplomas in Technology (DUT, or professional license) develop robots in a robotics club.

This project is particularly interesting because students develop a complete system and implement multidisciplinary skills and planning capabilities to create a robot that meets registration requirements in due time. Thus, it requires cooperation between GEII1 and GMP students. Furthermore, students interact with many teams—from the family-size team, to the robotics research team, to Higher BTS  Certificates and DUT students or engineering school students.

Chess-Playing Robot

The French Cup of Robotics brings together approximately 200 teams from engineering schools, universities, robotics clubs, IUT, and high schools. Approximately 3,000 students compete in a new subject each year at La Ferté-Bernard (France) in May.

During the 2011 competition, called Chess’up!, students created robots to play chess on a table. The projects centered around a bicolor checkerboard. Two robots competed by retrieving pieces arranged pseudorandomly on the board, and positioning them on assigned colored squares. Positioning a piece on the correct color earned a point; a stack of three pieces on the same color earned a bonus.

Our robot uses encoder-equipped motors for precise movement, a clip to hold parts and raise stacks, and sensors to locate other robots for collision avoidance and object detection. The robots had to comply with a height and perimeter template.

Powerful, All-In-One Device

We used 16- or 32-bit microcontrollers to develop the intelligent part of the robot. In the past, we needed to develop a specific electronic board to benefit from the best the features of the component. This year, we decided to implement an NI sbRIO-9632 module as the robot’s brain. This device offers many benefits for easy robot implementation.

First, it is useful for robotic applications because it incorporates both a Power PC processor and a Xilinx Virtex-3 field-programmable gate array (FPGA). With these two components, we can simply develop strategies to move the robot, control the actuators (such as motors and clips), and position the servo through the processor. Processor power and board memory space help overcome the material constraints of system commands previously developed at IUT1. With NI LabVIEW system design software, we can operate complex platforms with a simple approach for students.

Moreover, the FPGA not only preprocesses and formats sensor information, it also generates the PWM signals for the motors and the pulse widths for the servo motors independent of the processor. It can also manage safety procedures, such as stopping the robot to avoid collisions with another robot.

Easy Hardware Interfacing

The robot control requires implementing many sensors and actuators. Analog and digital inputs and outputs on the NI Single-Board RIO board helped us easily interface with different robotic elements, such as infrared detectors, impact sensors, infrared range finders, position encoders, servo motors, and DC motors.

Due to the large number and wide variety of inputs and outputs, their characteristics (voltage levels), and existing protections, we could simply interface the sensors without damaging the device and limiting the number of electronic circuits.

Less Electronic Development Time Means More Time for Strategy

With easy interfacing, students could focus on program implementation, robot management, and strategies to score maximum points without being hindered by hardware or electronic issues. Easy I/O data access simplified analog value preprocessing. We quickly created an operational robot and, therefore, had more time to maximize its movement on the game board for maximum efficiency.

For more autonomy in programming the robot, we connected it to the PC via point-to-point Wi-Fi during development periods. This meant the robot could move freely on the game table during the phases of development, saving time. However, this capability is not authorized during competition.

Encouraging Results

Our robot took 41st place in the competition—very encouraging for students that just received their BAC two or three years prior, as most were participating in the robotics competition for the first time. Our robot was ranked higher than a number of engineering schools. Our results were the best IUT1 Grenoble has had in its eight years in this competition. The robot did not experience any particular mechanical, electronic, or computer problems, so students could concentrate on a strategy for scoring maximum points.

Some concerns encountered during the competition resulted from a wheel slip problem due to a slightly oversized engine relative to the robot’s weight, and mood lighting that varied among gaming tables, disrupting sensors.


When participating in the robotics competition, we build upon the previous year’s development information. Even if the competition rules change year over year, actuators, sensors, and control boards remain substantially the same. The robot we created, and its associated programs, serve as the basis for future robotics competitions.

Because of NI Single-Board RIO device power reserve and I/O, we can reuse the target and modules developed in the FPGA to easily interface with the next competition’s sensors and actuators. We can also reuse the LabVIEW code.

Author Information:
David FREY
IUT1 de Grenoble
Département GEII1, 151, rue de la Papeterie
38400 Saint-Martin-d’Heres
Tel: +33 (0)4 76 82 44 70

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