As a builder, I'm
often asked questions such as "How do I build a robot?",
"Why don't you just jam the other robot's signal?" and "Why
are you doing this?" I also hear comments like "That's
stupid" "That isn't really a robot" and "I'm
gonna build a robot with _______ that will tear any of those other
robots in half."
My responses are:
Buy a bunch of
robot parts and put them together
too, and what's it to ya, anyway?
Bring it on
People have been
building machines for use in competition for thousands of years. The
modern sport of robotic combat extends back to 1994 when Marc
Thorpe organized the first
Robot Wars event in San Francisco. This was the first event
dedicated to robotic competition that featured large (180 pound)
Robot Wars continued
for a few years until 1997, when it held its last event in San
Francisco. This was also the year that the first Robot
Wars television program started shooting in the UK. Disputes
between Thorpe, the conceptual genius behind Robot Wars, and Profile
Records, the financial backers, led to the end of Robot Wars in the
US. Robot Wars, the BBC program, continues to be successful
until the present.
from the US decided that they needed their own space to play, and so
was born in 1999. After an un-televised event and a pay-per-view
special, the cable channel Comedy Central began showing Comedy
Central Sports Presents BattleBots in 2000. It started as a
huge hit for the cable network. My sources indicate that while the
show's ratings have declined, Comedy Central has chosen to extend the
show's contract though 2003.
In the meantime,
local competitions have flourished. While
events such as BotBash
in Arizona and the North
Carolina Robot Street Fight lack the facilities to handle the
larger robots, many competitors still show up to do battle with bots
weighing up to 120 pounds. This year, at Dragon*Con's Robot
Battles, which has been running for over 10 years, a record 26
Rules vary between
the various competitions. In general, they are directed toward making
the event safe and exciting for the audience. Virtually every
competition requires that drivers be able to control their robot
safely from outside the combat area.
There is a lack of
standardization among rule sets, mainly to suit the venue and type of
contest. For instance, many competitions held in confined indoor
areas, such as Robot Battles and the NERC
competitions, disallow internal combustion as a power source, in
order not to have to deal with noxious fumes and gasoline spills.
BattleBots bans entanglement devices such as nets in order to promote
spinning, saw-like weapons. BotBash includes an obstacle course and
soccer match, as well as direct combat.
Both Robot Wars and
BattleBots feature head-to-head combat. The competing robots will
simply attempt to destroy each other. If, within a given time, there
there is no knockout (one robot unable to move), the winner is
decided by judges. This can lead to some controversial results. Robot
Wars, in particular, has been accused of altering the outcome of the
tournament by judging the wrong way, seeding the tournament brackets,
and interfering by using the and using the "house bots" to
make for better (in the producers' eyes) television.
Robots are paired
off based upon their weight classes. The most common classes include:
1 pound (antweight), 12 pound, 30 pound, 60
pound (lightweight), 120 pound (middleweight), 220 pound
(heavyweight), and 340 pound (superheavyweight).
Some types of
weapons are banned almost universally: flamethrowers, explosives,
radiation, corrosives, RF jammers (most
robots are controlled by radio), noxious gasses,
and electrical weapons. Projectiles are allowed, typically on the
restriction that they be tethered to the robot.
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.
It's 90% robot, 90% driver, and 90% luck.
A fellow competitor, in the hotel bar after a day of BattleBots
Most fans and
beginning builders underestimate the difficulty of building a winning
robot. To give you some idea of how hard it is to win, I've been
building and fighting robots since 1997, and I'm just now starting to
be happy with the performance of my bots in the arena.
What you rarely see
on television are the large number of teams who show up to an event
with a robot that barely works, then lose right away to a machine
that is only mediocre. At the last BattleBots in May, 2002, over 600
robots were entered. Of these, 489 showed up and passed the safety
inspection. And it's a single-elimination tournament, so half of
these (245) never got past their first fight. So, winning teams show
up with a legal robot that works and can continue to work after
taking a little bit of punishment.
A robot builder's #1
biggest enemy is time.
The #2 enemy is the
weight limit. Keep in mind that when you see a robot fight, it's
almost always within 1% of the maximum allowed for its weight class.
This means that the designer has optimized it to perform its
functions as well as possible within the weight limit. So it's not so
easy to add new features, weapons or armor without giving something
else up or even redesigning the robot completely. Quite a bit goes
into a robot just to make it able to compete: frame, batteries,
motors, transmission, electronic speed controllers, radio equipment,
wire, switches, axles, bearings, wheels. And to be competitive, a
robot should have armor and a weapon, too!
The #3 is enemy is
money, though you can earn more money and shop for bargains by
spending more of #1. It is possible to design and build a winning
robot cheaply. But it doesn't hurt to spend money on the best
electric motors, 3.6
Ah NiCd Sub-C batteries, Thor
speed controllers are all technologies that have been developed for
robotic combat or found an exclusive niche there.
Enough with the
preparations. What should you look for when watching two robots
fight? The smart drivers will attempt to use their robot's strengths
against the opposing robot's weaknesses.
Faster robots will
attempt to make contact with slower ones and get away quickly.
Bots with weak or no
active weapons ("wedges," "rammers,"and
"push bots") will attempt to use the arena hazards to
damage an opponent. Often, such a contest will be determined by which
robot can get lower to the ground. If one machine can lift the other
partially off of the ground ("lifters,"and "flippers"),
the higher one will have less traction and is vulnerable to being
The crowd often
favors robots that have high kinetic energy spinning weapons, such as
rotating bars and discs. These robots are known among
aficionados as "spinners." Spinners like Ultimate
Phrizbee or Nightmare
can reduce weaker opponent to its component parts. Spinner drivers
like to see sharp edges and parts, especially wheels, sticking out of
the opposing robot. This gives their cutting edges something to catch
on and tear off. While these devices, which can weigh up to 150
pounds and spin at over 300 miles per hour might seem unstoppable,
there's a common saying among bot builders: "Spinners beat
themselves." The kinetic energy involved is so large, that all
or part of the spinning mechanism is likely to break at some point.
The wise driver,
when facing a spinner, will try to steer to avoid the weapon. Failing
that, the driver will attempt to hit the weapon with the strongest
part of his robot. Many spinners are also vulnerable to being tipped
on their side or flipped over completely.
There's a third
common form among robots, the "hammer bot." Hammer bots
deliver their force downward upon their opponents with a long hammer
arm. The hammers are typically driven by electric motors or
pneumatics (compressed gas). Hammers have a very small contact area,
and thus are hard to hit with, but many builders neglect to armor the
top of their robots adequately. Additionally, a heavy force from
above is typically transmitted to the wheels and bearings of the
struck robot, which has the potential to disable its drive system.
Hammers do well against low wedges, but not so well against machines
with long reach weapons, or spinners which can tear a hammer clean
off. Thus, hammer bots are often though of as the third part of a
rock-paper-scissors trio which also includes wedges and spinners.
variants exist, such as clamps, drums, powered spikes, and
thwack-bots, but this is intended to be a guide to the appreciation
of the sport, not a comprehensive treatise on strategy.
The easiest prediction to make is that in the
future we'll see improved versions of the robots of today: more
powerful spinners, faster rammers. The people who build the
BattleBots arena will have a hard time keeping up; despite continuous
improvements, someone always seems to find a way to break the
Secondly, many possible designs haven't been
implemented properly or at all because of their complexity. One of my
medium-term projects is to build an effective projectile
weapon bot. My long-term (2-5 years) goal is to build a legged
robot that's dynamically
stable, so that it can run and jump.
I recently competed at BattleBots season 5.0. The
contest will be shown on Comedy Central starting in August. Though
I'm under NDA and can't disclose the winners, I will tell you that
there's one robot that you'll certainly want to see: Warhead. Built
by the same British team that created Razor,
it's both a gorgeous work of art and a destructive machine. Bots like
Warhead really are the future; if more robots as sophisticated as
Warhead appear, the popularity of the sport will be assured.