Expect to Be Destroyed

Maker News Robotics
Expect to Be Destroyed

My first experience with combat robotics ended exactly as I expected: in complete destruction.

This article appeared in Make: Vol 81. Subscribe today for more robot projects and tips.

It was 2016. A friend of mine, Leanne Cushing, competes on BattleBots, and she suggested I join her for a combat robotics competition in Massachusetts. Not knowing much of anything about robots in general, or combat robots specifically, I built two bots and was unceremoniously crushed in the competition. It was totally and completely awesome.

I knew from that moment that I enjoyed the sport. The challenge and the fact that you are competing with something you build and design is just really unique. As a builder, however, I had this feeling that there was something missing. The event I’d been at felt like it was poorly paced, making for a long day without enough action to keep competitors engaged.

THE CAGE IS THE STAGE

I knew I had the operational background of bringing order to chaos in running a company, so I decided to try to put on a combat robot event of my own.

Fast-forward to 2018. I had just sold Datto, the company I founded in 2007, and trust me when I say I’m not the kind of guy who can sit still for long — I was itching to build something. Anything. I knew I had the operational background of bringing order to chaos in running a company, so I decided to try to put on a combat robot
event of my own. I bought an 8’×8′ cage from a group associated with the New York City Maker Faire, and posted a message to a few corners of the internet inviting people to come fight robots with me at an office building that I own in Norwalk, Connecticut.

To my surprise, it actually worked. In September of 2018, 17 people showed up to stand around a little cage on the third floor of an office building to fight robots. That was our first event. We made a “house bot” out of a cinder block, and livestreamed fights to YouTube. I was the producer, announcer, and video switcher, and spent the day just trying to keep up. It was a blast.

We held a few more events in 2019. In the beginning, the competitors were mostly from the northeastern U.S., but soon people started coming from farther away. We started seeing 30 or 40 robots show up at each event. At each successive event, the flow of matches went faster and faster, because I wanted to make them really watchable via livestream. We fought them all in just that single cage through the end of 2019.

I had run a startup before, so I knew to focus on achievable, constant, incremental improvements. After every event, the question was “How do we improve the production quality a little bit? How do we run this event a little bit more efficiently?”

It was slow and steady: First, we brought on new announcers. Then we brought someone in to help switch the video feeds. And so on and so forth. For the first event, we wrote the bracket out on a whiteboard. Now, the brackets and match flow and everything are deeply computerized and automated. It’s been a process, but we haven’t stopped focusing on identifying and making high-impact improvements after every tournament. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back — but we are never complacent and always working to improve the experience across the board.

THE COVID HIT

While we prepared for our first event in 2020, the pandemic happened, and we had to push pause on hosting tournaments. Covid was, however, like an accelerant on all things, so it’s also when things got interesting for our little league. I ended up with too much time on my hands (which, as noted above, leads me to do crazy things), so, when I had the opportunity to buy a 67,000-square-foot building right down the block from the office building I already owned, I went for it.

Owning our buildings gives us a lot of advantages. We’ve been able to install a lot of safety equipment that, for instance, allows our cages to run at a negative pressure, which means that we can have things like fire (always a spectacle); in another environment this wouldn’t be safe. Our cages are made of steel and have two thick layers of Lexan, which is similar to bulletproof glass. We can have batteries explode; even rocket motors can be used in a safe way. No one in the audience is at risk, none of the drivers are at risk. All this safety means more options for builders to get creative with their designs.

With safe procedures and more space, I knew we could host bigger, badder robot fights. That would mean more cages, bleachers for fans, and a lot more media gear. We went up to four weight classes: 3lb, 12lb, 12lb Sportsman, and 30lb.

The second half of 2020 was spent outfitting that building to be ready to have robot events again, starting in February 2021. We were crazy enough to say “come and bring your robot to fight” — and people did, in droves. In February we had 49 robots, and set up the pits, where builders do their repairs, outside in the parking lot. At our next, in March, we had 68; then 83 in May and 111 in July.

It was easy to see we were on to something. We were seeing more people, coming from farther and farther away, and as Covid receded and travel got a little easier, we just kept getting bigger and bigger.

READY TO GO BIG

The team pits

I ended up with too much time on my hands (which, as noted above, leads me to do crazy things), so, when I had the opportunity to buy a 67,000 sq. ft. building right down the block from the office building I already owned, I went for it.

We’ve built a strong community over the years, and we feel strongly about putting our builders first, because we’d be nowhere without the them.

That was the point when I realized that Norwalk Havoc was becoming more than a hobby. The community was starting to see us as the future of this niche but growing sport. We were getting big, and really competitive, and I knew we needed a dedicated team in order to exist long-term.

In the summer of 2021, I started looking for someone who could run the league full time, and help monetize and scale it beyond the walls of our warehouse. I was introduced to Kelly Biderman, who had years of experience in media working at places like The Wall Street Journal and Katie Couric Media, but no background in robotics. I laid out the opportunity — noting that she would be absolutely crazy if she took this job — and perhaps she didn’t believe me, but she came on board as CEO of our new company, Havoc Robotics, in the fall.

Kelly’s “outsider” perspective has been really valuable so far; she’s brought in a professional production team and content strategist who have leveled up our livestream to resemble a broadcast-quality program, and helped us increase our digital audience by several thousand by marketing our massive content library more efficiently. She has big ideas and ambitions around sponsorships and partnerships with brands that share our values. Those values: making STEM fun; encouraging innovation and creativity while pushing limits, safely; and celebrating and supporting builders and makers.

We’ve built a strong community over the years, and we feel strongly about putting our builders first, because we’d be nowhere without them. That’s part of why we’re exploring sponsorship as the avenue to monetize the tournaments right now — because the cost to compete with us is $0. Robot fighting is an expensive sport, so we make a point to limit the cost that we pass on to our competitors, and instead find ways to support our league, and eventually our builders, with the help of like-minded brands.

WHERE WE’RE GOING

Match sparks a-flyin’.

As of March 2022, we have five cages in operation at each of our seven annual tournaments, and we rotate fights between them as quickly as we can. Because so much of this is geared around the livestream, and I’m a nerd, we have over 70 cameras to follow the action from every angle. We’ve expanded our team to include replay operators, a professional TV graphics developer, and a pit reporter. Our March 2022 event was our largest event ever, with 112 robots, over 400 spectators, and more than 25,000 views of
our livestream on YouTube. For spectators in person, there are bleachers surrounding the cages and there are television screens everywhere so no matter where you are in the arena, you have a great view.

After events, we publish and package individual fight videos, which are a more accessible way for new fans to discover the sport than a 12-hour livestream. What we’re really working on now is figuring out how we attract those adjacent audiences who are maybe fans of BattleBots, or similar things like esports and gaming, and bring them into the fold by just showing really cool videos of robots blowing up and destroying bulletproof glass.

This sport has serious competitors in the same way that mainstream and esports do, and now it’s really about growing the following. I expect to find that some of our robot fighters end up being meaningful influencers in their own right, and we’re eager to support that. Builders have amazing stories and journeys that brought them to this sport. They’re creating a little brand for each one of these robots, and you can see people getting excited about them, and that’s just really cool to witness.

We truly believe our potential audience is virtually untapped, and that we can bring this sport from niche to mainstream. It doesn’t matter who you ask — if you show someone clips from our events, they can’t stop watching. It is really fun to compete, whether you’re a first-timer or a pro. It is a fantastic way to gather a whole bunch of innovative, creative, STEM-minded folks together and see how they are tested.

We’re a little nerdy, a little quirky — we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which makes us welcoming for people of all experience levels and backgrounds. We award winners with cash prizes, but as a nod to our irreverent beginnings, they’re also handed a miniature dumpster as a trophy. We want to keep that bit of weirdness in place because we’re all a little weird, and owning and celebrating that has helped us build our community into what it is today.

We have everyone from rocket scientists and professional roboticists to 12-year-old tinkerers and groups of moms in their 40s. They are incredibly supportive, and are constantly helping each other in the pits or on Discord, because they want to compete against the best robots out there, and still have fun doing it. It is truly a sport for anyone, and we have a laser focus on making sure our league is builder-first and accessible for all.

We hope that by the end of this year, we’ll have the tournaments running in a predictable, efficient way, because we have our sights set on growth beyond Norwalk, and even beyond combat robotics events. You can really feel the potential buzzing around Norwalk Havoc, and for us, this is just the beginning. 

Find Norwalk Havoc Robot League online, website, YouTube.

We’re a little nerdy, a little quirky – we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which makes us welcoming for people of all experience levels and backgrounds.

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Austin McChord

CEO of Casana, and the founder and former CEO of Datto, Connecticut’s first “unicorn” startup. He is a graduate and trustee of the Rochester Institute of Technolog

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