Makers of this giant fighting robot had a rough time at CES

MegaBots, an Oakland startup, wants Mecha fighting to be a televised sport. But starting a robot fight league presents some major challenges for humans.

Mark II from MegaBots

UPDATE (1/14/2016): aerialsports.tv CEO Marque Cornblatt offers the following response:

"It is accurate that I was responsible for canceling the Megabot v Drone bit. The reason was essentially lack of organizational planning, lack of safety oversight and lack of rehearsal. Aerial Sports League (ASL) originally agreed to a plan with our drone battle cage located in the middle of the secure race track - basically surrounded by layers of netting and safety precautions in addition to the battle cage itself. However at the last minute XDC organizers relocated the drone battle cage to a high-traffic public area with no added safety precautions.

"ASL was not very familiar with Megabot prior to this event and we were not confident in the plan to have it shooting projectiles at drones without a rehearsal or safety check/demonstration. ASL has produced dozens of drone combat and racing events with over 150,000 spectators, and we enjoy a perfect 100% safety record. Based on our collective experience, the ASL team unanimously agreed that the idea was too risky."

UPDATE (1/13/2016): MegaBots co-founder Brinkley Warren offered a clarification in response to this article. It sounds like MegaBots wanted to go forward with the Mark II v. drone showdown and had every intention of blasting some pesky quadcopters out of the sky with the arm cannon. According to Warren, it was the CEO of aerialsports.tv (a co-sponsor of the event, along with MegaBots and XDC Racing, and the same people behind Game of Drones, which I've covered here) who backed out at the last minute, causing some backstage drama and a quick scramble. I have a message in to Marque Cornblatt, CEO of aerialsports.tv, and will update this post with additional information as it arrives.

Giant fighting robots versus souped up drones.

It sounds like a throwaway plot from Godzilla, but the stage was set at CES this past weekend for a 12,000-pound Mecha-style bot called the MegaBots Mark II to take on a squadron of screaming racing drones.

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But the only thing the event confirmed for sure is that the roboticists behind MegaBots, an Oakland startup that wants to use cutting-edge robotics technology to make the giant piloted fighting robots of science fiction a reality, are masters of hype. After raising $500,000 on Kickstarter last year to bring the Mark II to life, the MegaBots team challenged Japanese giant robot maker Suidobashi Heavy Industry, which has built a 13-foot tall, 8,000-pound fighting robot called Kuratas, to a duel. The bout is supposed to take place later this year.

Let's hope it goes better than the event this past weekend. The bot v. drone matchup was called off at the last minute, though the reasons given were hazy. In fact, the whole event remains a bit of a mystery. It was never clear exactly how the 15-foot Mark II was going to engage the drones from the Xtreme Drone Circuit Racing championships. Presumably the killer bot would fire a volley of soft Nerf-like projectiles from its arm cannon while the drones buzzed around it King Kong-style, but that's speculation.

Yeah, the Mark II has an arm cannon.

Instead, spectators got to see a demo of the robot destroying a bunch of boxes. It was a reminder that however cool the Mark II is (and it's pretty cool), it's very early going for robot sports and no one is quite sure how this is all going to play out.

kuratas-megabot-challenge-2015-07-06-01.jpg

Kuratas

Ultimately, MegaBots' goal is to set up a live sports league featuring fighting robots like the Mark II. It's an ambitious target, but it's easy to see the upside. Live sports entertainment accounts for $17B in annual revenue in the U.S. alone.

One problem MegaBots has to overcome is the extraordinary cost of entry to the sport they're envisioning. Not many people can afford a custom-built fighting robot (the Mark II and Kuratas are two of a kind, so far as I know) and investors are only going to bite if they see a clear path to profitability.

That's left MegaBots with a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. The startup needs an active fight league to start bringing in the kind of broadcast money that will pay for this crazy sport, but it can't get a league going until there are enough robots out there capable of fighting.

So some rich investor needs to take a leap of faith. Last week MegaBots founders had a chance to pitch Richard Branson at the second annual Extreme Tech Challenge at CES. The field was packed with up and coming tech companies, including Sphero, which makes the awesome BB-8 robot toy. MegaBots didn't end up placing in the top three, so won't advance to the next round of the challenge.

So CES must have been disappointing for this small outfit of robot geeks. But I hope those dudes keep their chins and spirits high. Clearly there's an interest in fighting robots, and marshaling that interest is going to take the kind of hype skills they've been very good at. From everything I've seen, their robot is the real deal: an impressive melding of robotic controls and destructive power. And it only takes one liquored up billionaire to write a check before we're off to the races.

If you happen to be that billionaire, do us all a solid.

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