Photos: Nathan Hurst

Oehrlein, left, with Cavalcanti. Photos: Nathan Hurst

This morning, MegaBots launched a Kickstarter seeking $500,000 to fund its giant robot, Mk. II, in its upcoming battle against Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Kuratas.

Mk. II (pronounced “Mark Two”) is the second iteration of MegaBots’ 15-foot-tall fighting mecha suit, set on tractor treads, with hydraulic arms and legs, a 24-horsepower engine, and a cage protecting dual pilot seats. On the right, a massive cannon fires 3-pound paintballs 120 mph; the left is rigged up to rapid fire 20 smaller “paint rockets.”

The money, sought via pledges offering rewards from a $5 “thank you” and your name on the website to thousands of dollars for in-person fun like smashing cars and shooting weapons, will go toward paying for upgrades to the bot necessary to make it ready for real combat.

Mecha Dreams

MegaBots co-founders, Matt Oehrlein and Gui Cavalcanti, are literally following their childhood dreams — dreams shared by legions of fans of anime and movies and video games — to pilot their own combat robot. The project has a bombastic momentum to match its scale, and is using that to build up to next year’s throw-down against the Japanese mecha team.

Oehrlein and Cavalcanti introduced the Mk. II at Autodesk’s booth at Maker Faire Bay Area, to the delight of assembled crowds. By the end of the session, it had assaulted a sacrificial car with dozens of paintgun balls fired by its air cannon. The car was dented past functionality.

It was a month later that Oehrlein and Cavalcanti, decked out in hallmark aviator shades and American flags, issued a challenge to the Japanese team: “We have a giant robot, you have a giant robot. You know what needs to happen.” Kuratas’ builder, Kogoro Kurata accepted, adding a request for melee combat.

But if Team MegaBots wants to have a chance at beating Kuratas — at even making the fight happen at all — they’re going to need some serious cash.

Giant robots aren’t cheap, and the Mk. II isn’t finished. It came into existence thanks in part to help from Autodesk, but it will need serious adaptations to compete with Kuratas. Even moving it to the battlefield will be expensive. Mk. II weighs 12,000 pounds, and does not fit in any airline’s overhead baggage.

But back to the Kickstarter at hand: The creators point out that nobody has done anything quite like this before. They’re still determining which weapons to build. Stretch goals run up to $1.5 million, and suggest partnerships with DARPA and NASA on balance control and safety systems.

MegaBots is thinking ahead. The Kickstarter is about making Mk. II battle ready, but it’s also about maintaining control.

“If we tried to take money from investors or from any other source it would be like we would have to do this, and this, and that, and make it look like the following brands and so on,” Cavalcanti told The Verge.

Plus, they’ve got some big-name help. MegaBots has announced a crew of advisers including Mythbusters’ Grant Imahara, X-Prize’s Peter Diamandis, and BattleBots’ Trey Roski and Greg Munson.

Kickstarter Risks and Challenges

MegaBots’ first Kickstarter failed to raise the requested $1.8 million, reaching only $65,319. It was a mark of the scale of MegaBots’ ambition, and also helped serve as effective marketing — Autodesk offered use of the company’s Pier 9 facility, and the team moved their operations to California to take advantage of the waterjet, machine shop, and more available there.

When it rolled out at Maker Faire, the Mk. II was clearly a work in progress (foam armor, painted to look like metal) and sacrifices had to be made in the design (treads instead of walking legs). But it was tall and heavy and powerful, stunning as it rose to its full height to loom over the crowd.

Kickstarters, of course, are no sure thing. They are frequently delayed by various unanticipated problems. Cavalcanti, and some of the supporters of a previous project of his, are well aware. Stompy the Hexapod, a six-legged rideable hydraulic robot the size of a light truck, is also a work in progress. The project raised nearly $100,000; at the $300 contribution level, backers were promised a ride on Stompy, with an estimated delivery around April 2013, but the comments section is alight with people wondering when they’ll get their ride, or resigning themselves to disappointment. Stompy’s most recent Facebook update, posted July 16, shows the hexapod moved from Artisan’s Asylum (the makerspace in Somerville, Massachussets, where most of the construction took place, and which Cavalcanti co-founded) to one of the builders’ homes.

The current MegaBots campaign also features participatory rewards. The $250 level offers access to and a tour of their headquarters in Oakland’s American Steel, a block-sized facility where artists work on massive projects. VIP access, including photos inside Mk. II starts at $750, and rides start at $1,000, jumping upward if you want to fire the cannon or smash anything.

Photos: Nathan Hurst

Photos: Nathan Hurst

Making Mecha Progress

Recently, in California, Cavalcanti, Oehrlein, and their team put on a performance of the Mk. II for Fuji TV. Make: social media manager Jessie Wu sacrificed her aged white Honda Civic to the beast. The MegaBots team took Mk. II for a 2 mph walk, down Oakland’s Mandela Parkway to an abandoned side street where the Civic sat awaiting destruction.

The trigger system was not functioning, so Oehrlein rigged up a makeshift firing mechanism using a power strip. To aim, Cavalcanti sat on the ground in front of the car, looking down the business end of the barrel and motioning to Oehrlein which way to move the hydraulic arm. It was a tense moment, even though the chamber had not yet been pressurized. The three-pound, six-inch-diameter paintballs, fired at 120 mph, would obviously wreck any puny meatbag who happened to be in their way.

Photos: Nathan Hurst

Nat Hunter loads a paintball. Photos: Nathan Hurst

Next, Cavalcanti fed one of the pink oobleck-filled foam balls into the cannon, pushing it in with what appeared to be a broomstick. With Cavalcanti safely inside the cockpit, and the cannon pressurized to 100 psi, Oehrlein flipped the switch. Nothing happened. So he jiggled it, flipped it again, and the cannon went off.

The ball struck the car on the door handle, denting it in and scattering shards of the hard foam that made up the paintball’s shell. Pink oobleck dripped down the side and onto the ground. An amazed sound escaped the 15-or-so people assembled, and everybody rushed out to gawk at the damage. Then, the MegaBots crew changed the aim, and heavy equipment specialist Nat Hunter loaded another paintball by hand, and used an air compressor to begin pressurizing for a second shot.

Photos: Nathan Hurst

Photos: Nathan Hurst

It was impressive and fun — thrilling even — but also evidence that this bot is not yet ready for battle. Hence, the crowdfunding campaign.

The Kickstarter, they hope, will help them adapt, alter, and finalize Mk. II, making it badder and better and a true competitor. With TV stations knocking on the door with various deals, a host of new partners announced, and an ongoing relationship with Autodesk, it’s set to be an eventful year for giant robot warriors. And a bad one for small cars.

 

See the full Kickstarter here.