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Building Bigger

As maker hobbies go, building robots is one of my favorites. I know many people share my enthusiasm, and many kids and adults have at least a passing interest in robotics. Let’s face it. Robot are cool!

However, most robot hobbyists tend to fairly small-scale robots. The cost and complexity of a large robot is a lot to tackle. Scaling up means more materials, more powerful actuators, greater stress on the frame, and larger power requirements. Everything in the design gets bigger when you build a big robot.

Model for Jamie Mentzel’s Giant Robot Project…

Jaimie Mantzel with his giant robot

and the real deal.

That’s why I’m so thrilled that we will have some real expertise represented at Maker Faire Bay Area this year. (Unfortunately not Jamie’s project above; I’ll say more about him in a future article.) I would like to single out two makers who will be at Maker Faire, and tell you a bit about them and their robots.

The Hobbyist: Dave Shinsel

As someone who shares the hobby of making robots, I really have to look up to Dave Shinsel, who has come up with some truly impressive designs. His robots have appeared in Popular Mechanics and on the cover of Servo Magazine. He has also competed in RoboMagellan, a challenging contest that tests a robot’s ability to navigate successfully.

This article is about big robots, so let’s talk about Dave’s biggest robot, Loki.

Meet Loki

Loki, named after the Norse trickster god, weighs almost 80 pounds and stands four feet tall.

Loki says, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong… and usually break something important.”

Loki is built completely from scratch, using mostly aluminum. A wheeled base allows Loki to get around, and two articulated arms let him interact with his environment. His head and arms are driven by high-end servos. The shoulder joints are custom chain-drive driven by precisely controlled motors.

Programmed in C++ and C# and using a laptop as the central processor, Loki receives sensor data and controls power and lights through an Arduino microprocessor connected to the laptop through USB. Additional sensor processors are located in the head and in each arm. Loki’s sensors include two PIR motion detectors, 10 IR range sensors, two ultrasonic range sensors, four bumper switches, an electronic compass, and motor speed and direction monitors for each wheel.

Loki is equipped with two webcams which allow Dave to experiment with stereo vision. He’s got basic stereo vision working, but he’s still tinkering to improve the depth perception.

The robot is highly interactive and can speak and respond semi-intelligently to voice commands and questions. He can even tell a few jokes.

Playing with Even Bigger Robots

Recently, Dave  got a chance to team up with his daughter Amber and play with an even bigger robot on the SyFy show, Robot Combat League. Dave piloted the 7′ 9″, 826 pound robot Crash, while Amber operated the robot’s torso and arms to battle equally huge robotic opponents.

Crash is ready to roll!

Team Crash started out in 12th place among the other contestants, dead last. Worse, their ranking paired them to fight the top-tiered team in the very first robot bout on the show, ever. Starting from behind and without the benefit of having at least watched some of the other competitors fight, it didn’t look good for Dave and Amber.

Dave and Amber Shinsel on Robot Combat League

However, the father and daughter team surprised everybody. They went undefeated in four spectacular fights to win the very first Robot Combat League championship! I don’t want to ruin the suspense for you by providing any details. If you haven’t seen the show, you should really check it out.

Meet the Robot Maker

Dave manages a graphics performance software team at Intel Corporation, but he builds robots as a hobby for fun and for the challenge of building and programming them.

Now you can come and meet this robot champion and master hobbyist at the Meet the Maker stage at the Bay Area Maker Faire. Dave will present information how Loki was created using common supplies and hand tools. You can also hear a little bit about his experience on Robot Combat League.

Look for him at the Meet the Maker stage at 11:30 on Saturday.

The Professional: Mark Setrakian

Many hobbyists aspire in their hearts to make robots for a living. So let’s take a look at a maker who does this stuff professionally. The name Mark Setrakian may not be a household name, but chances are you’ve seen some of his work.

Mark began his professional career at 19 working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. Over the years, he has honed his craft to eventually become the go-to guy for mechanical monsters. He has been the brains behind creatures in such movies as Men in Black I, II, and II, Hellboy I and II, and many more. His work will also appear in the soon to be released Pacific Rim.

Mark Setrakian and the team from Spectral Motion created the creature Sammael from Hellboy.

However, not all of Mark’s robotics qualifications are professional.

Robot Wars and Battle Bots

Even as Mark was creating creatures for the film industry, he gained true robot maker cred by competing in amateur robotic fights like Robot Wars and BattleBots in the mid-90s and early 2000s. Mark was a fierce competitor, and known for creating highly original and effective fighting robots.

His design for The Master, with two large wheels and a central arm that could swing to deliver damage, was the original “thwackbot”, and was emulated by others. The Master’s weapons could be interchanged to customize it for different fights, and included a battle axe, powered circular saw, and the spiked lifting arm shown below.

The Master equipped with a spiked lifter arm.

Other creative designs Mark built for combat included the super heavy weight walker, Machadon, and the truly unique Snake.

Mechadon and Mark with Snake

Mechadon and Mark with Snake

The Creative Genius Behind Robot Combat League

In his work on film, Mark is a master of mechanics who can realistically create life-like motion in what are essentially super high-tech puppets. When you are dealing with animatronics at this level of sophistication, the line between life and imitation blurs to non-existence. As advanced as Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has become, Mark’s creations are still the epitome of Hollywood’s creature creations. Mark reportedly doesn’t expect that balance to last forever; CGI will eventually replace the use of practical animatronics in film. Where one door closes, another opens.

When Mark was contacted by the producers of SyFy’s Robot Combat League, They had in mind something like an updated version of Robot Wars or Battle Bots, with teams making and competing using their own robots. Mark convinced the show’s producers that having the contestants build their own robots as originally planned was not going to deliver the results they wanted. He had a vision of huge humanoid creatures on a scale and cost that would have been challenging for most amateurs.

To prove it, he built a prototype robot named Hades and demonstrated it to the SyFy team. You can see it beating the heck out of a Volkswagon in the video below. The execs at SyFy were sold, and so now Mark had the task of making twelve more of these beasts.

To accomplish this Herculean task in a few short months, Mark teamed with his old colleagues from Spectral Motion. Mark worked with the team to design twelve robots around a standard frame. Spectral Motion built custom shields for each robot, giving each one a unique personality. The robots have names like A.X.E, Game Over, Steampunk, and more.

In a previous article, I told you about robot engineer Annika O’Brien, who appeared as a contestant on Robot Combat League, and her experience piloting one of these robots.  She described the overwhelming sound of these monsters hammering away at each other. Each round was like being in the middle of a two minute car crash.

Editor’s Note: Annika tells me she will be at the Bay Area Maker Faire this year too. It’s like a Robot Combat League reunion.

Inside the Art and Technology of Robot Combat League

However, this is MAKE Magazine, so maybe you’re more interested in hearing more about how theses robots were created. If you are coming to the Bay Area Maker Faire this year, you are in for a treat. Mark will be presenting on the Center Stage on Sunday.

He will give you an inside look at the background, development, and execution of the fighting robots from Robot Combat League. Do you want to miss that? I don’t.

So if you are a fan of the show, or just want to come meet Mark and other similarly impressive robot makers, come out to Maker Faire this year. I’ll see you there.

Andrew Terranova

Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and an electronics and robotics hobbyist. He is an active member of the Let’s Make Robots community, and handles public relations for the site.
Andrew has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children’s Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Learning Center in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.


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