Zachary Lytle, a former RoboGames competitor and champion, was having trouble with his new business, Bot Bash. What seemed like a great idea — bringing robot combat to birthday parties — was foundering for a simple reason: The kids couldn’t tell the robots apart. “I was making gray boxes that fought each other,” he recalls.
His then-girlfriend (now wife) stepped in, telling Lytle he should give the robots some personality. Diana Lytle, now also a decorated RoboGames competitor, gave them names — Baby Bunny, Frost Bite — and even costumes. It’s a funny priority for a robot (you’d assume the robots themselves care little what color they are), but an important one. Sometimes, a bot just needs to be black, or pink, or covered with a growling demon face.
Kind of like professional wrestling, all that theatricality is supported by the fundamental fun of bashing bodies against each other. Unlike professional wrestling, competitions between robots can lead to real advances in design, mechanics, and operator technique. Leagues and contests offer a sort of Darwinian incentive to building better bots, and require competing against — and sometimes, collaborating with — people with different ideas. The king, of course, was the beloved BattleBots series, Comedy Central’s hit reality show that ABC is rebooting this year after more than a decade off the air.
“The zeitgeist is here, it’s time for it to return,” says Greg Munson, co-founder of BattleBots. “It’s going to help inspire future innovators, future engineers, future makers, from not only America, but if the show goes international, from all over the world.”
The new show, which premieres this summer, will be characterized by newer, better tech — especially batteries and motors — and by a few significant rule changes. For example, wedge-style robots, often blamed for the demise of the original series, will now be required to feature secondary weapons. “You have to change the engineering challenge to get new robots,” says Munson.
Why We Throw Down
Hobbyists and professionals have been pitting their robots against each other for decades, on and off TV, most visibly in BattleBots. “That visceral quality of two machines going at it to the death, without any humans being hurt at all, has this really fun essence to it,” says Munson. “No one’s getting hurt, but we can all enjoy the destruction.”
BattleBots’ other founder, Ed Roski, concurs, recalling his own experience fighting. “I can let go. I can destroy that thing. It gets all of that out of me, and there’s no guilt,” he says. “I can be friends with you, and beat the crap out of your robot.”
In the mid 2000s, BattleBots waned and a string of copycats failed to gain much traction on TV. But now, nostalgia, crowdfunding, and web TV are helping robot combat come back for round two. RoboGames, which exceeded its $40,000 Kickstarter goal last year to hold a live event hosted by Grant Imahara this April, features 3-minute robot combat rounds, as well as more than 53 other competitions, including sumo and lift-and-carry.
MegaBots, a proposed new combat league, fell far short of its $1.8 million crowdfunding goal, meaning at least for now we won’t be seeing 15-foot, piloted, humanoid robots fire bowling ball-sized paintballs at each other in arenas and stadiums. But they’re getting help from Autodesk in the form of collaborative design challenges and the use of tools and space at Autodesk’s Pier 9 shop in San Francisco, and they plan to bring a partially completed bot to Maker Faire Bay Area this May.
Gary Gin, whose wedge-style combat bot Original Sin is ranked #1 in botrank.com’s heavyweight division, has competed in nearly every RoboGames, as well as a couple of the original BattleBots shows. “Robot combat right now is pretty much still a very maker sport,” says Gin. “You’ve got to build something before you can get into the competition.” And, he adds, the best way to get hooked is to see it live. “You can watch a lot of these fights on TV or on the internet, but it really is nothing compared to actually being next to the arena while a match is happening. The sounds that you hear, the smells, you can feel the entire floor shake sometimes.”
That may be why competitions have persisted in the event space, while recent TV shows have failed. It’s not a lack of popularity, says David Calkins, founder of RoboGames. “I myself have always considered robot combat to be a sport,” he says. “It’s all the thrills and explosions of NASCAR without anybody dying. Whatever sport you’re watching, you’re watching it for the action.”
But live TV hasn’t worked out for RoboGames, which signed several deals only to have them fall through. Rather than sport, robot combat has fallen in the domain of reality TV, says Calkins, which is based on practically free content. That doesn’t work out well for robot fights — he estimates RoboGames costs $100,000 to put on, not accounting for the bots that get destroyed. (Ray Billings, whose spinning-bar type bot, Last Rites, is one of Original Sin’s most fearsome competitors, says it usually costs $5,000 to $10,000 in broken motors and machine parts per event.) That $40,000 Kickstarter won’t even cover the venue rental, Calkins says, so they’ll rely on selling tickets and producing their own content, which will be available online.
A Virtuous Cycle
Before Bot Bash, Lytle was a multiple-time RoboGames champion. When his sponsors pulled out during the recession, he struggled to fund his obsession. But he scrounged together nearly a decade of experience and spare parts to make Bot Bash happen.
He’s carefully designed the bots to maximize entertainment and minimize actual damage. Motors are mounted on flexible materials so driveshafts and gearboxes feel less impact. Temperature sensors and voltage regulators shut the bots down before they heat up enough to get damaged.
That doesn’t mean nothing breaks. After all, that’s why we watch (and play).
“When a tire falls off, the kids have the biggest thrill. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I wrecked you!’” he says. “In robot fighting, there are no cheat codes.”
What Lytle has learned through Bot Bash has paid off at RoboGames, he says: When you’re running the robots weekend after weekend, you get all the bugs worked out. In a single weekend his bots will fight up to 8 hours, which can be the full lifetime of some combat bots. It shows in his results too — his bot Micro Drive won the 150-gram division in 2006 and 2007, and his other, The Bomb, won the one-pound division in 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2015. Diana Lytle won in 2015 too, taking the 150-gram title with her bot Dust Bunny. So RoboGames influenced Bot Bash, which is now influencing RoboGames.
But there’s more to robot combat than titles and ratings. Jason Bardis is another former BattleBots competitor and champion. Now he’s a senior mechanical design engineer for MDA US Systems, the company that builds robot arms for Mars missions.
Bardis earned his chops through years of small-time robot battles. He entered the 1996 and 1997 Robot Wars (before that competition was televised) and did poorly. He competed in Robo-Joust in a Las Vegas trailer park. Then BattleBots began, bringing with it more money and notoriety thanks to the Hollywood machine.
And Bardis started having more success. He won the 60-pound lightweight class twice, plus a 16-bot Robot Rumble, with Dr. Inferno Junior, an anthropomorphic wedge-like robot that pushed competitors into the arena’s hazards. He even managed to make a profit, thanks to sponsorships and merchandising. “Part of my secret was I was a poor graduate student and I didn’t spend much money,” he says. But after BattleBots went off the air, it was tougher to fund all that destruction. The arms race had escalated, and bots were doing more damage to each other. Bardis got married, had a kid, took out a mortgage, and retired from bot fighting.
But he took something important with him. All that time in his college’s machine shop, designing competitors, building them, and fixing them wasn’t wasted. He learned basic design principles: wall thicknesses, strength of materials and fasteners, how to do wiring, how to design for easy repair and maintenance and swapping out of parts. “I got a whole lot of hands-on, bloody- knuckles, dirt-under-the-fingernails experience that none of my colleagues got,” he says. “I learned way more doing that than my Ph.D. dissertation, and it’s helped me tremendously in my professional career — and my social life — more than my education did, or more than any other internship or experience.” He learned to make things that could stand abuse. And when he went to job interviews with robotics companies, all his prospective employers wanted to talk about was BattleBots.
Now he mentors and judges contests, gives talks, and hopes to become a judge on the new BattleBots. Like Gin, Bardis touts the live event. “First thing anybody should do is find an event and see it in person. You can watch it on TV, you can watch it on YouTube, you can watch it live streaming … it’s like watching an Imax movie through a drinking straw,” he says. “You’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re not smelling the robots, you’re not feeling the robots, you’re not feeling your feet shake, you’re not looking at all the smiling faces of excited people all around you.”
Gin, Bardis, and Munson all mentioned the smell. “It stinks,” explains Munson. “It’s burnt batteries, it’s the smoke from internal combustion engines, it’s the oil that’s used to lubricate the moving parts, and it’s just that sort of ozone-like quality when things smash into each other. It adds to the excitement. It would be nice to have some Smell-O-Vision.”
They never really left, but whether you can smell them or not, combat bots are definitely back.
TIP: Want to get involved? You don’t need a machine shop or thousands of dollars. Start small — RoboGames and other competitions have lightweight divisions as small as 150 grams. It may not be as exciting as smashing 220-pound behemoths together, but the cost-to-fun ratio is much better. Prototype with a few servos and some cardboard and get building.