By Jared Chausow
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By Jon Campbell
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BattleBots became an official organization for what founder Trey Roski calls "the emerging sport of robotic combat" only last March, but it is already the world's largest robot competition in terms of both the number of contestants and the size of the combatants themselves. What's more, Roski already has plans in the works that may catapult this wonky underground into a phenomenon that rivals NASCAR or WWF in scope and potential revenueand MIT Media Lab or Xerox PARC in innovation.
The story of BattleBots began under freeways and in the abandoned air force bases of the San Francisco Bay area, where hardcore engineers and designers would huddle together and watch their radio-controlled toy robots ambush one another. In 1994 the underground tournament became a formal annual event called Robot Wars, started by Industrial Light & Magic veteran Marc Thorpe. Robot Wars was held every August for four years until Thorpe and his financial backer Steve Plotnicki broke into a high-impact skirmish of their own over how to run the company, and ended up in court. Thorpe was ousted and Plotnicki licensed the name to a British company that now produces a frilly, scripted version of the event, which airs on the BBC.
When Robot Wars dissolved, the underground was gaining force, so Roski, a former Robot Wars champion whose family owns the L.A. Kings hockey team and part of the Lakers, started to organize his own version of the event. Every robot has a name, a weight division, and a team of designers who engineer and operate it during combat, which is either a one-on-one duel or a free-for-all "robot rumble." While the machines of Robot Wars never got bigger than 180 pounds, Roski has amped up the scale with four divisions: super heavyweight (316-488 lbs, newly added), heavyweight (174-315 lbs), middleweight (88-173 lbs), and lightweight (25-87 lbs). Winners in each division share a cash prize of $25,000.
Roski plans to hold at least four major BattleBots events per year all over the country. The upcoming Pay-Per-View gig has yielded tremendous interest from outside the traditional niche world of robot aficionados. When he isn't fielding calls from David Letterman or Jay Leno, Roski is caught up in a frenzy of cross-platform marketing: Fox is interested in a weekly show that will highlight footage from heavyweight combat and examine the construction and design of light- and middleweight robots (which tend to be less spectacular to watch perform, but often more intricate in their design). Mattel and Hasbro are considering creating BattleBot action figures, and Sony and Disney are mulling a BattleBots cartoon. It may seem tragic to corporatize the sacred, geeks-only underground, but Roski is a geek through and through and wants the expansion of the empire only to improve the quality of engineering and the size of the stakes for contestants.
All the action takes place inside a 48-square-foot, $100,000 BattleBox arena, which is entirely surrounded by 20-foot transparent walls made of bomb- and bulletproof polycarbonate Lexan (the same material used for riot glass). The steel floor is raised two feet off the ground, rimmed with a six-inch spiked bumper, and riddled with surprise trap doors, spikes, spears, and saws that trigger randomly and can be used to the opponents' advantage. There is serious danger involvedthe superpower hydraulic ram on Alexander Rose's Rhino, for instance, "could perforate metal and sail right through a human body"but no one but the robots has gotten hurt so far.
As part of BattleBots' elaborate set of rules, bots are thoroughly screened for weapons restrictions: There can be no use of electricity as a weapon; no liquids, foams, or adhesives; no explosives or flammable solids, no high-powered lasers, strobe lights, floodlights, or smoke that would impair the visibility of another bot, and no untethered projectiles (tethered projectiles are allowed, on a leash of up to 10 feet). Also forbidden is the use of heat or entanglement devices (nets, fishing line, et cetera). Any kind of saw or ram or hatchet is allowed, though not all bots seek to destroysome prefer to disable the enemy with flipping mechanisms like a wedge or a forklift.
Designers have a mind-boggling array of engineering options to consider. There are no restrictions on materials: Entrants have been known to cobble together masterpieces from junkyard scrap metal and invest thousands of dollars in superstrength materials like titanium. As for locomotion, only flight is restricted. Bots are generally distinguished as wheeled or nonwheeled (which includes legged "StompBots" and machines that drag or scoot themselves) and by their power source: electric engines with high-volt batteries, hydraulic systems, pneumatic systems, or two-stroke internal combustion engines.
Building these beasts is not just a hobby. Many participants sink $10,000 of their own money into their contraptions, only to see them get shredded to pieces within the first couple minutes of combat. That figure is expected to rise now that corporations such as Rolls Royce are sponsoring bots and plan to debut their own brand-name bots soon. Many of the entrants are professional engineers, though there are also students who participatelike 12-year-old Lisa Winter from Wisconsin, whose Tentoumushi, a ladybug that trapped opponents inside its wings, made it to the lightweight semifinals in August. Whatever the age or skill level of the entrant, combat robots require months of work and postbattle improvements.
"My wife tells me that I am more in love with my robot than I am her," Roski admits. "To win you have to be. They are our creations. It's kind of like making Eveas close as you can get without being God."
Other participants hope the rising sponsorship deals will enable them to make robot competition a career. Christian Carlberg, who designs mechanical puppets for Disneyland, says he would leave "the happiest place in the world without a second thought. I want to invent my own concepts, make them happen, shred my opponent, and look good doing it!" Jim Smentowski, another seasoned bot builder with a dream job (he makes special effects at ILM), says he'd be thrilled to do BattleBots professionally, as does Carlo Bertocchini, creator of the bot Biohazard and a rocket science engineer. Bertocchini doesn't have any qualms about the growing corporate hoopla surrounding his lifelong passion. "All professional sports rely on corporate cash and sponsorships," he says. And, as Alexander Rose points out, the more funding the better, because what it supports is "the optimal Darwinian competition, a battle of brains."