The MegaBots shop is located in an easily overlooked industrial area one exit before the bridge that takes you from the suburban East Bay into the gleam of Silicon Valley. There are no visible windows, just a building with a solid door and a rolling metal gate that leads to a work yard. A “Press the gray button for MegaBots” note is the only external indicator of what’s inside.

Everything through that door is oversized. The interior of the shop is long and tall. The workspaces are stocked with giant tools and parts. A huge MegaBots logo on the back wall faces three towering bay doors. And in the center is the star of the show: a massive, black, partially built robot. Even kneeling and with its arms and panels removed it’s impressive, its size accentuated by the team members climbing on top of it to adjust the wiring and hydraulic hookups.

This is MegaBots’ Mk.III, a $2.5 million dollar fighting robot that, its creators hope, will kick off a new form of live entertainment, a wild mix of UFC bouts and monster truck rallies. And after nearly two years of hype, the Mk.III is slated to make its first public appearance in just over a week — yet the shop seems awfully calm for something so bold.

The MegaBots team readies the Mk.III a week and a half before its debut. Photo by Hep Svadja

Kickstarting a League

MegaBots began in 2014, a collaboration between the heads of two large makerspaces, Gui Cavalcanti from Boston’s Artisan’s Asylum and Matt Oehrlein from i3 Detroit. Their shared experience of bringing oversized group projects to life with their communities led to an assignment to build a robot, with the intention of launching a new sporting league.

“We had got a small amount of angel funding,” Oehrlein says about MegaBots’ inception. “The investor said ‘Take this money and build as much of a robot as you can, run a Kickstarter, and see what happens.’ So we built as much of a robot as we could with the funding, which was like half a robot, and dragged it to New York Comic Con.”

“Some people didn’t get it,” he continues, describing the reaction to the seven-ton, cockpit-and-cannon-arm contraption that appeared in the concourse of the Javits Center. “There were a good amount of people who were like, ‘what is it? What video game is this from? What movie is this from? What comic book is this from?’ But there was a small percentage of people, maybe like 20% of people there, 15% of people there, that did get it. And the people who got it, their minds were blown. That was probably the first little ‘Hmm, OK, there’s something here people are connecting with.’”

An advanced hydraulic system controls the Mk.III’s coordinated movements. Photo by Hep Svadja

That first Kickstarter, seeking $1.8 million to build two fighting robots that would riddle each other with giant paintball cannons shooting at 120mph, ended unsuccessfully. The duo pushed on regardless, moving construction from Boston to San Francisco, where they built a complete second iteration of the robot, Mk.II. It debuted at the Maker Faire Bay Area in May 2015. Weathered to look like a seasoned combat vet, the green and yellow machine rolled around on treads, lifted up on two legs, and launched three-pound, paint-filled ballistics at a donor car. It was loud, messy fun. The crowd loved it.

How Did you Design This Thing?

“Gui used to work at Boston Dynamics, so that’s an obvious crossover there, they build super dynamic, responsive robots. I used to work at Eaton Corporation on hydraulic systems for construction equipment. So, if you take our backgrounds in visual form, and you put a Boston Dynamics robot next to a giant excavator and you put a plus symbol next to them and an equals, it’s that robot out there — that’s the equation.” —Matt Oehrlein

As the Mk.III comes together for the first time, the team needs to reposition some components. Photo by Hep Svadja

Bring on Japan

At the end of June 2015, MegaBots popped up in the news again as Cavalcanti and Oehrlein released a video challenge to fight a similarly sized robot from Japan: Kuratas by Suidobashi Heavy Industry. The video, featuring the duo in American flag capes and aviator glasses, is heavy with exaggerated patriotism and robotic destruction, highlighting their flair for theatrics. Media outlets all over picked it up — the video now has nearly 8 million views — and a few days later, the creator of Kuratas posted his own video (complete with a Japanese flag cape) with the response “WE ACCEPT.”

Co-founder/CEO Gui Cavalcanti assesses one of the cannon’s air tanks. Photo by Hep Svadja

The team actually knew about Kuratas before they started MegaBots, but the initial idea wasn’t to fight it. “We essentially got to a point where we were like ‘we need to start a sports league, we only have one robot, and we don’t have enough money to build a second robot,’” Oehrlein says. “How do you start a sports league with only one robot? Well, you find someone else who already has a robot.”

With the buzz that generated, MegaBots launched their second Kickstarter to revamp their robot for melee combat (a requirement from the Japanese team). This time they ended successfully, accumulating over $550,000 from nearly 8,000 backers. They even offered to let the top backers drive the robot (31 pledges) and punch a Toyota Prius with it (3 pledges). Although they posted the estimated delivery as June 2016, this was to be a big part of their performance at Maker Faire, nearly a year later.

MK.III Stats:

Illustration by James Burke

  • Weight: 14 tons
  • Height: 16 feet (18 with the eagle)
  • Capacity: Seats two pilots
  • OS: Realtime Linux Kernel and Ubuntu
  • Electronics: 650+ cables, 300+ devices
  • Sound System: 4x500W coaxial speakers
  • Video: 14 HD (1080p) weatherproof cameras with 10x IP65+ display screens connected to 16 in/16 out video matrix
  • Hydraulics: Up to 140 gallons per minute of hydraulic flow at 4000 psi
  • Degrees of Freedom: 21
  • Accumulators: Steelhead Composites BattleMax, Kevlar Jacket, 7.8 gallon total capacity
  • Computer: Logic Supply Neousys Rugged
  • IMU: XSens MTi Series
  • Valves: Parker Hannifin high-speed proportional valves
  • Hoses: Parker Hannifin 4000 psi, Tough Cover and Super Tough Cover
  • Cockpit Controls: 2x 5-DOF Joysticks, 2 foot pedals, 40+ momentary/toggle switches, for each pilot
  • Radiators: 6 radiators, 2x hydraulic oil, engine coolant, transmission oil, engine oil, pump case drain
  • Gallons of Hydraulic Oil: 100
  • Gallons of Gasoline: 17
  • Gallons of Engine Oil: 1.5
  • Gallons of Engine Coolant: 4
  • Total Length of cabling: 1 mile
  • Types of connectors: M12 A-Code, M12 D-Code, M12 T-Code, M8, BNC, 350A power couples, and many others

Building a Team

From their Kickstarter, MegaBots continued accumulating financing, raising an additional $3.85 million in venture capital, plus revenue from appearances, sponsorships, and merchandise sales. This would go into building a new robot, but first they had to build a team.

Each MegaBots pilot controls a complex system of sticks, pedals, and switches. Photo courtesy of Megabots

“Having money to pay people helps a lot,” Oehrlein says, somewhat sheepishly, about how his group came together, “but it’s not hard to get people excited about building giant fighting robots, as you can imagine. It’s legitimately one of the coolest jobs in the world. I feel like I can kind of say that without exaggerating.”

Oehrlein then admits, “I remember thinking it would be way easier than it actually was. I imagined we’d put something on LinkedIn, or just post something on the MegaBots Facebook page, and we would just get thousands of resumes. We set our requirements pretty high, pretty aggressively for who we wanted to hire and that’s resulted in a really amazing team.”

As the 18 full-time staff settled together, they initiated their plans for Mk.III, a bigger, badder MegaBot than the Mk.II. “Massive upgrades,” Oehrlein says of the differences between the two. “The Mk.II was about 24HP, the Mk.III is a 430HP Corvette engine. It’s super loud. It’s a little more than double the weight of the Mk.II. It’s about a foot taller when it stands up. It has melee weapons on it. It is way more responsive; the hydraulic system is orders of magnitude more responsive. Complex, compound movements are a breeze to do in this thing — where the Mk.II was literally levers attached to the valves, your hands are now on joysticks that talk to a computer and calculate where you are moving the robot’s hand in space, and all of the joint positions just fall into place automatically. The whole control system is decades of technology improvement built into that thing.”

Jon Gulko and Zachary Wetzel consult on a decision. Photo by Hep Svadja

They didn’t just assemble a team to build a robot, either. The goal from the beginning has always been entertainment, both live and televised, which has been a large part of the financing they’ve attracted and the partnerships they’ve built — their advisors include Greg Munson and Trey Roski, founders of BattleBots, Grant Imahara from MythBusters, and others with ample robotics (and television) cred. The team is discussing broadcast options for the duel with Kuratas, and in the meantime has assembled an on-site production company and produced a web-cast series of Mk.III build-up episodes over the past year.

Meet the Team:

Photo courtesy of Megabots

From left to right:

  • Max Maruszewski – machinist
  • Robert Masek – facilities manager
  • Kelsey Mohland – office manager
  • Andrew Dresner – electrical engineer
  • Gui Cavalcanti – CEO
  • David Isaacs – lead business development
  • Miles Pekala – senior electrical engineer
  • Jon Gulko – senior mechanical engineer
  • Lyra Levin – senior mechanical engineer
  • Nathan Mertins – IHMC control system
  • Matt Oehrlein – COO
  • Micah Leibowitz – machinist
  • Tim Bogdanof – fabricator
  • Zachary Wetzel – fabrication manager
  • Stephen McCrory – IHMC control system
  • Doug Stephen – IHMC control system
  • Jan Ochoa – camera op/editor
  • Dan Pederson – senior mechanical engineer (not pictured)

Two Days to Go

On our stop at their shop a week after the first visit, the MegaBots team has made considerable progress on the robot, attaching its arms and canopy, and has driven it into their outdoor test area. The space is a concrete slab surrounded by shipping containers that have been converted to additional workspaces, including one for the programming team, a prestigious group of roboticists from the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition — 2nd-place finishers in the DARPA robot challenge. They’re using a custom, open source code that is written in Java and is faster than ROS, which is uploaded via Ethernet to an onboard Intel i7 computer running Linux.

The Mk.III, standing tall, looks even more impressive than a week ago, and the team looks a lot tenser as well, with two days to go before their Friday debut at Maker Faire.

Miles Pekala works on sorting the cabling. Photo by Hep Svadja

“The thing I’m most afraid of is a hydraulic failure in the robot,” Oehrlein tells us. “If a hose blows and the robot sits down very rapidly, or maybe one leg fails and the whole robot tilts off to the side … .” He explains that both legs move independently and says he’s not sure if there’s a hard stop in it. “I’m more afraid of failures in the robot rather than ‘If I punch this car, will it swing into the cockpit and kill me?’” he says.

The IHMC team echoes his concern. “The part that is hard is the scale,” their leader Peter Neuhaus says. “It’s hard to not make it tear itself apart. This thing can move fast.” The group tells me it has a 35-foot wingspan, and each arm can move, outstretched, from the side of the robot to its front in a half second.

The team grinds away as the day turns to night. Their plan is to drive it over the bridge to San Mateo, where Maker Faire is located, at 3pm the next day. “It’s going to be a late night tonight,” Oehrlein says.

The IHMC team works on refining the code to run the Mk. III. Photo by Hep Svadja

Showtime

Thursday comes and goes with the Faire team putting the finishing touches on the event, but MegaBots is nowhere to be seen. They’ve updated their arrival time to the following morning. Friday, a flatbed truck shows up just after noon with the robot loaded aboard, tucked sideways in an attempt to fit within the legal highway width constraints. They unload inside the front gate as the crowd begins to gather for the 1pm Faire opening. Cavalcanti climbs into the Mk.III, fires up the engine, and slowly drives down a ramp and to their location 50 feet away. Even crouched, it jiggles a bit as it moves off the truck. The crowd applauds. The MegaBots team spends the rest of the afternoon working on the robot, adding the external armor pieces, and placing a giant eagle’s head on its shoulder that, they tell us, will be equipped with additional weaponry in the future.

The Mk. III slowly loads off the truck. Photo by Hep Svadja.

The first official showtime is slated for 10:30 Saturday morning. That day, the team has a Prius hanging by a truck-mounted crane stashed behind a safety barrier. Crowds fill the too-small bleachers and overflow 20 people deep around the fencing that surrounds the MegaBots demo space. Cavalcanti is on the microphone, giving details about the Mk.III, explaining its transmission (it’s from a boat), what the hydraulic accumulators do (“they’re like capacitors”), and how, fully pressurized, the robot should throw a washing machine 75–80 feet. He also mentions that the hydraulics on the robot have been limited to 25% of their capacity, as they have only just fully assembled it for the first time and don’t want to hurt the robot, much less any of the attendees.

Oehrlein and one of the engineers are inside the robot as the programmers, seated under a canopy, send code to its computers. The pilots fire up the engine, but the first three attempts to pressurize the hydraulic system result in it stalling and the crew running the Ethernet cable back inside the cockpit to load code adjustments. Cavalcanti jokes with the crowd that this is now a live engineering show. The robot rumbles alive again with its grid of radiator fans sending dust flying, and then rises to its legs. But shortly afterward, the team pauses to work out a few more kinks in the code that are keeping it from retracting its right arm, tipped with a grappling hook “fist” from a large logging machine, and then swiveling it forward — the motion that allows it to stretch outward to smash the automobile punching bag in front of it.

By 1:30pm, the first punches have been thrown, and while they aren’t impressively fast, the mass behind the 14-ton, steel robot easily shatters the windows and leaves large dents in the car’s sheet metal on each impact. As the day continues, between periodic hydraulic seal-failure repairs, the team proceeds to adjust the punch sequence. Toward the end of the day, Cavalcanti excitedly tells us they’ve really got it dialed in, doing a couple swings toward the crowd before rotating to the car and slamming it twice. It’s the first time we see him smile.

A Prius gets a right jab from the Mk.III at Maker Faire. Photo by Jun Shéna

The performances continue through the afternoon and Sunday, each drawing massive crowds that now stretch 100 people deep. Some still gripe about its slow movement, but the group lingers with anticipation regardless, camera phones extended overhead like at a rock concert.

The final show ends with the robot on one knee, piloted by senior electrical engineer Miles Pekala as he proposes to his girlfriend, Baltimore Hackerspace President Jen Herchenroeder, with a supersized 60-pound engagement ring attached to the Mk.III’s hand. After she says yes, the plan is for her to pull a rope that will drop the ring through the windshield of the now-battered Prius below. But as the Mk.III turns into position, it breaks another seal and begins to spew hydraulic fluid. The team powers it down before any damage results.

Looking Forward

A few days later, the mood at the MegaBots shop is decidedly lighter — goofy even, with the weight of the show lifted off their shoulders. “It was stressful at first,” Oehrlein says, recapping the weekend, “but then it turned out to be cool because the people that come to Maker Faire, they really like to geek out on how things get made, how they go together, and how projects are built. So they actually got to see some of the process that we go through as we fix things on the robot, wake it up for the first time. On one hand, the robot didn’t perform up to our expectations on Friday and Saturday, but we were able to offer people a sneak-peek behind the scenes and turn that around into a positive. On Sunday by one o’clock, we had all those problems buttoned up, and we were able to hit our stride and put on great shows.”

What a little lighthearted fun looks like when you have your own shop yard and giant robot. Photo by Hep Svadja.

That still leaves the bigger objective looming, however — the duel with Kuratas, slated to happen this summer. The MegaBots team hasn’t forgotten that, and by the end of the week, have already pulled the robot apart to get it in its final fighting form.

“The cockpit is taken off, and we’re updating the cooling even more on the track base,” Oehrlein says. “We’re re-wiring a few things to make it more reliable, and we’ll be putting it back together late next week. And then we have a number of weeks of tuning the controls on it and getting it tuned up, and unlocking those speed improvements.

“If there was one thing that we had more time to do,” he continues, still reflecting on Maker Faire, “it would be trying to get the robot moving faster. Our valves were seriously artificially limited in how much fluid they could push. That’s probably the biggest difference between how the robot performed and audience expectations inspired by science fiction.”

With the machine updated, its speed maximized, and with time to learn how to use it to its fullest, Oehrlein is expecting a bright future. “You have my word, the robot will move much faster. Maker Faire was the robot’s first baby steps. We’re just starting to see what this robot is capable of.”

Robert Masek tidies up for the day. Photo by Hep Svadja.