Niigata, located along the coast of the Sea of Japan, has traditionally been known for its high-quality rice (koshihikari), indescribably stunning fireworks (one of the best in Japan), skiing in winter and an abundant hot spring towns. But most recently, a group of students has been aiming to put the prefecture with an entirely different distinction — to propel Niigata as a wellspring of talents in robotics and robotic competitions worldwide.

The group behind this vision: the Phoenix Robots.

Phoenix Robots is a voluntary organization established in March 2020 by students studying manufacturing from Nagaoka University of Technology, Nagaoka National College of Technology, and Niigata University. By incorporating the technology of Niigata and Japanese companies into robots and by participating in world competitions, the group aims to promote Niigata and the ethos of monozukuri (Japanese-style manufacturing processes that emphasizes better quality and continuous improvement) to the world. In the future, the group aims to take the top prize in world championships such as ‘RoboMaster’.

To learn more about the organization, the Nagaoka Review reached out to the group to learn more about their activities, the projects that they are working on, and other interesting facts about robotics.

The universities in Niigata where members of Phoenix Robots are from

What is Phoenix Robots? How was the group conceptualized and established?

PR: Phoenix Robots was established based on a call from Kai Yamagishi and Tsutomu Oguro, who are OBs of Nagaoka National College of Technology and students of Nagaoka University of Technology.

These two universities are located in Niigata Prefecture, where manufacturing is thriving nationwide. In particular, the city of Nagaoka has schools and organizations participating in robotic conferences such as technical college Robocon, student Robocon, and RoboCup.

Various activities related to robotic education and robots are carried out and even elementary school students get to participate in these events. We thought that if we gathered the talents and technological capabilities of Niigata, achieving great results in the world would not be impossible. So, we decided to form a new robot team that gathered students from Niigata and challenge RoboMaster.

‘Phoenix’ is a symbol of Nagaoka City. It symbolizes flying from Niigata to the world. A phoenix is said to be capable or reviving itself many times. Because it symbolizes passion, we adopted “Phoenix” as the team name and logo of the group.

Who are the students that are part of the organization?

PR: Currently, Phoenix Robots has about 50 students and 4 working people. Students belong to schools in Niigata such as Nagaoka University of Technology, Nagaoka National College of Technology, and Niigata University, as well as students from outside Niigata Prefecture such as the University of Tokyo, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, and Tohoku University.

In addition, Assistant Professor Naoki Wakui (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Nagaoka National College of Technology) and Professor Tetsuya Kaida (Department of Technology Science Innovation, Nagaoka University of Technology) serve as advisors.

Members of Phoenix Robots

What is RoboMaster? What kind of activities do you usually do for RoboMaster?

PR: RoboMaster is a comprehensive robot competition that was launched in 2015 and led by DJI (Da-Jiang Innovations), a Chinese technology company based in Shenzhen, China. It is a competition that is rapidly expanding in scale around the world.

During the competition, each team creates a large number of robots and takes a position similar to a survival game in a field where complicated elements are mixed. It is a competition that requires not only various mechanical elements such as rough terrain vehicles, drones, and self-sustaining vehicles, but also advanced control technologies such as image recognition, autonomous driving, and drone flight control.

Robomaster Venue. Image Source: Robomaster

RoboMaster’s main purpose is to “cultivate the next generation of human resources who will create and innovate.” In addition to design ability and skill in manufacturing robots, students also develop capabilities related to public relations, sponsorship gathering, and securing development sites. As participants, it also provides an opportunity to develop one’s ability and learn from others in the field through active exchanges with overseas teams.

A robot at a Robomaster event. Image Source: Robomaster

Phoenix Robots is active mainly in two bases, the Nagaoka base (Nagaoka New Industry Creation Center: NBIC) and the Niigata University base (Niigata University Engineering Education Center). Every day, we make and practice robots at our bases. The activities are divided into four groups namely: machinery, circuits, control, and operation.

In addition, since each member lives in a remote place, regular meetings are held remotely using remote communication tools. In 2020, our team developed nine robots.

The robots that have been developed by the team

Phoenix Robots base in Nagaoka: Nagaoka New Industry Creation Center

Tell us about your achievements in the tournament.

PR: The team participated in the RoboMaster 2020 Technical Challenge online category for the first time in August last year and received the “Third Prize”.

The city of Nagaoka recognized our achievement in the competition and so we paid a courtesy visit to the mayor of Nagaoka as Phoenix Robots.

Certificate of participation during the RoboMaster 2020 Technical Challenge

The robot that was presented and won Third Prize during the RoboMaster 2020 Technical Challenge

Courtesy call with the mayor of Nagaoka City

What other activities does the organization outside of joining tournaments?

PR: We continue to participate in robot education activities to make robotics and engineering more appealing to children who will be engineers of the future.

In these events, the group conduct an actual demonstration of what the robots can do and encourage these children to watch robot tournaments to pique their interest and have an impactful experience, so they become interested in manufacturing. We make these activities sessions fun, interesting, and enjoyable for the young generation.

Also, we promote robots at various events. In 2020, we held robot demonstrations at the ‘Nagaoka Elementary School Robot Contest’ and the ‘Nagaoka Roadside Station Event’. We also participated at the Nagaoka Monozukuri Fair held on 2021/02, where we hosted a robot exhibition match in cooperation with the RoboCup SSL team ‘INPUT’. We had a red and white battle divided into two teams, and live-streamed the event.

Robot demonstrations at the ‘Nagaoka Elementary School Robot Contest’

Nagaoka Roadside Station Event and Nagaoka Monozukuri Fair

What are your goals and future vision for Phoenix Robots?

PR: Our goal is to win the world championship at RoboMaster. At the same time, Phoenix Robots will challenge RoboMaster with the aim of cultivating robot engineers now and in the future.

Through our activities, we also hope that our members will have new and challenging experiences to help them grow, steer their imagination, and give them drive to innovate.

Ultimately, we would like to establish a role model for robot education from Niigata by creating a process where students who have learned manufacturing will implement technology in society and foster a new generation of students with manufacturing and engineering mindset.

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James Redmond Chua

James Redmond Chua

Executive Project Manager, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise