Build a killer robot, win cash prizes

BattleBots offers cash for those who build the best killer robots.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

Over $50,000 (£31,000) in robotic equipment was damaged this weekend at the Long Beach Pyramid in California. Hundreds of people had a great time watching.

BattleBots, a "battle-to-the-death" competition between remote-controlled robots, featured even more fun and destruction as the weekend wore on, when finalists fought it out for over $25,000 in cash and prizes. Actually, they would have done it for nothing, and many have in the past. While robot combat competitions have been around for over five years, this is the first such event to offer more than just trophies to the winners.

At BattleBots, the goal is simple: "Break" your opponent, either by slamming into it or hitting it with a big saw or blade. But that's not the only peril the robots face: the competition ring is another obstacle, with rotary blades and spikes poking out of the floor.

Not even winning robots come away unscathed, though they do come away with prize money now. And with all that money up for grabs, you'd think it would matter more who won. But that's not really the spirit of this event. "The point of the prize money is to bring up the quality of robots," said BattleBots President Trey Roski. "We're going to try to go up to $50,000 dollars in cash and prizes next time. That way the winner of the heavyweight competition will be getting a $10,000 prize." As a long-time competitor in robot combat, Roski knows that even that much money wouldn't cover all the costs of some entries.

So what drives a person to spend several thousand dollars to build a robot, only to throw it into an arena where circular saws are going to come up through the floor and eat it? The best answer comes from the guy who installed those circular saws and then threw his robots right in.

Christian Carlberg says it was his love of the sport and the engineering challenge that drove him to it. Like many competitors, Carlberg was inspired when he saw a similar event, Robot Wars, on television. "I instantly knew I had to be involved. Plus, no one was really doing a good job with a walking robot," says Carlberg. With that in mind, Carlberg built two walking robots, PHM and Buzzcut, for the 1997 Robot Wars. That caught the attention of some people at Disney who offered him his current job designing rides as a Disney Imagineer.

For robots on wheels, one of the key components is the speed controller. "It's the real interface between the human and the robot," says Carlberg.

Robot designer Arthur Sanders had a good speed controller for his robot, Chew Toy, but knew a month before the competition that he wouldn't be ready. You might think he'd just get bitter and wish bad things on his competitors. But in the friendly spirit of robot competition, he gave his speed controller and some other parts to competitors Tony Buchignani and Andrew Lindsey for their Spike of Doom.

"With a bad speed controller I can go back and forth. With a good one I can do a wheelie," says Sanders. So not only will a good speed controller help you hunt down your opponent, it also let Spike do a little happy dance, wheelie and all, after a successful battle.

But the biggest challenge for competitors can sometimes come before you've even ordered the parts. "The hardest part in my opinion is coming up with the design idea," Ronski says. "When you build a robot for BattleBots it's not like building a robot for any other type for task because you don't know what you're going go up against. That's what makes it so interesting."

But there are a few minutes before each battle when you DO know who you're going up against and British designers John Reid and Dominique Parkinson used that time to their advantage with their entry, KillerHurtz. They were surprised that more teams didn't adapt their robot for each battle, according to the opposition.

"We knew that our next opponent, Nightmare, had a lot of energy stored up so we decided to use it against him," Reid said. "We stuck iron bars out in front as sacrificial armour." Their tactic worked and resulted in a fantastic battle, with KillerHurtz coming away with a huge chunk of plastic missing. That's pretty good considering it was up against a massive circular saw on wheels.

"What I expect to happen within the next year is that robots will get into magnetism," Roski said. "Robots will be driving up to each other they'll suck themselves down to the floor and they'll just beat on each other. And that's what we want. We're looking for fighting. The wedges just aren't that interesting of a robot."

Roski may just get what he's looking for at the next BattleBots, scheduled for Comdex in Las Vegas this November.

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