6 Life Lessons from Robot Combat

Robotics Technology
Flaming combat bots on Battle Bots. Photo: ABC
Flaming combat bots on BattleBots. (Photo: ABC)

While I was watching BattleBots with my 9-year-old son, he learned a valuable life lesson when the Overhaul team captain, Adam Bercu, refused to shake hands with Lock-Jaw driver Donald Hutson after a perceived illegal hit during a battle. “Why did he not shake hands?” my boy asked. Then I had to explain what sportsmanship was and why it mattered.

It was a teachable moment. And it made me realize that the combat arena holds a few more life lessons. Like these:

1. Always have a way to flip yourself back over

Bots that have flipper arms as weapons can often use them to flip themselves back over if they get inverted. Bronco shown. (Source: Battlebots wiki)
Bronco has a flipper arm weapon, which can also be used to flip the bot itself over if it’s inverted. (Source: BattleBot wiki)

It amazes me that people compete in robot battles with bots that lose the match the minute they’re flipped on their backs. In the arena, as in life, getting inverted is likely. You should always have a way to flip yourself back over, as it were. Alternatively, you design a bot (or a life) that works even when upside-down.

2. Carry spare parts, or know how to make them

Counter Revolution getting eviscerated by Tombstone (Source: Battle Bots)
Counter Revolution getting eviscerated by Tombstone (Source: BattleBots)

On the battlefield of life, you will lose pieces as you go. Weapons, wheels, blades, friends, money, jobs, you name it. If you have acquired it, be prepared to lose it. And know how to replace it.

3. Shake hands when the match is over

Adam Becru is upset at Donald Hutson
Handshake: denied. (source: Coffee and Celluloid)

Outside of the ring, we are all fighting our own epic battles. Just because you have an opponent, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. Once the buzzer sounds, shake hands. You may meet again outside the ring, and that time you may want him as a friend.

4. Adapt

Every fight is different. So you cannot stay the same. Study your opponent before every fight, and learn the new skills you’ll need to compete, or build a new weapon to counter their special attack. Complacency is suicide.

5. An unbalanced weapon can harm you more than your opponent

In the BattleBots semi-finals, Tombstone rips into Bronco, and the force of the impact unbalances its spinner weapon, causing more damage to Tombstone itself than its opponent.

We see this in the devastating spinning-weapon bots. They use rotational inertia to rip into opponents, and when they connect, they’re effective. But gyroscopic effects can easily make these bots uncontrollable, and worse, if the weapon is damaged, the unbalanced spinning forces can tear a robot apart. In other words: Flailing at life can be effective in the short term, but it’s a very dangerous tactic.

6. Don’t lose sight of the world while focusing on an opponent

The arena itself can turn against you. You can get smashed by a hammer, thrown into screws, or just get your wedge stuck on uneven ground. The world changes. If you over-focus on an opponent, you may find yourself done in by a changing environment. This applies especially in business, but also in love, in politics, and in work.

6 thoughts on “6 Life Lessons from Robot Combat

  1. John Tamplin says:

    To be fair, Overhaul didn’t shake hands with Lockjaw because they felt like he took several hits after the timer expired. Personally, I think they should have shook hands anyway despite having a legitimate gripe.

    1. Rafe Needleman says:

      Yeah, it was an egregious after-the-buzzer hit, or at least it looked that way on TV. But even so, you shake hands.

  2. Idahoser says:

    Man, I love Battlebots. This show doesn’t have the ‘fun’ factor that they had on Comedy Central but it’s still better than any of the other attempts to make this format work. Hope they come back again (and in less than a decade this time)
    Bronco reminded me very much of Toro, my favorite of all time (after Biohazard, of course)

  3. Mike Herbst says:

    You missed the most important lessons from Robot Combat. Here’s what I took away from my years in the sport, going back to pre-Battlebots in the late ’90s:

    * Above all else, have fun. There will come a time when you’re knocked out, broken, or just plain broke. If you can’t sit back and enjoy it like a spectator with an all-access pass, you’re doing it wrong.

    * Make friends with everyone involved. You’re only competing inside the ring – outside you’re all the same flavor of nerd with the same weird hobby.

    * Never stop learning. Grab new skills. Your new friends will help you.

    * Share your experiences. Become the teacher you wish you’d had when you were a newb.

    Robot Combat changed the whole trajectory of my life. Early interest in it informed some of my studies in college. Many years of post-college bot building taught me all the stuff I missed when I was IN college. I ended up stumbling into an actual robotics job, becoming a robotics mentor to a dozen kids, and generally became the ‘Maker’ I am today. Better yet, I’m still friends with many of the early bot builders nearly two decades later.

    1. ccouden says:

      Hi Mike, I’m putting together the Reader Input section for our upcoming issue of Make: and would like to possibly include you comment. Please email me at ccouden [at] makermedia [dot] com with your name (if different from above), city, and state (or country), and if you’d like to include a full mailing address we’ll send you a copy of the upcoming issue when it comes out.


  4. mtanne says:

    Great lessons! Loved this years’ BattleBots. Staying in the running usually came down to one of these factors. At todays level of competition, if you can’t flip over, you’re doomed. And coming back with a different weapon attachment keeps the opponent off guard.

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Rafe Needleman

Rafe Needleman is the editor-in-chief of Maker Media. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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