NEW YORK TIMES January 24, 2002 When Nerds Collide:
Bots in the Ring By JAMES GORMAN
In the television land of the BattleBots, the goal is to be the last machine standing. (Well, rolling).
At first glance, it's obvious why "BattleBots," the robot fighting show on Comedy Central, would draw television viewers like passers-by to a car crash. It is, after all, a series of staged battles between remote-controlled machines equipped with spinning blades, ramming spears and swinging maces. It has noise, wreckage, pseudo- sports commentary modeled on professional wrestling and the all-too-obvious décolletage of Carmen Electra, proffered to the camera as she asks a robot designer, after a bout, how it felt to have his weapon lopped off. In short, it is mildly nasty, mechanically brutish and thoroughly tasteless — the perfect television show. And yet, talking to one of the show's creators, you get the idea that the whole BattleBot universe is a giant math class, much more effective than those that take place in a classroom. Trey Roski, president and chief executive of BattleBots, would have you believe that the show is almost nothing but redeeming social value. "To me `BattleBots' is about education," Mr. Roski said in a telephone interview. "You learn pi building a BattleBot, you learn it forever. We're teaching kids to think." About what? Ms. Electra or equations for torque? Are robot battles on television simply a junkyard circus with models, or is bot vs. bot a test of intelligence and engineering skill? If machines ever do become intelligent and self-conscious, will they revere their fighting ancestors or immediately disassemble themselves out of sheer embarrassment at their past? These are not insignificant questions. There are now at least three television shows with battling robots, including two versions of "Robot Wars" on TNN and "Robotica" on The Learning Channel. In Japan, robot sumo is so popular that the championship draws thousands of people. David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America and an unabashed proselytizer for robot competition, said of the world of fighting bots, "In 10 years, it will be bigger than Nascar." That sounds silly. But make the number 20 years and think of what happened with personal computers between 1980 and 2000.
Tazbot, built by Donald Huston of Team Mutant Robots in San Diego, is in the superheavyweight class.
It makes you think that at the very least, fighting robots are not going to go away. One thing is certain: making robots compete against one another is irresistible to their builders. "Robot Riots: The Good Guide to Bad Bots" lists almost 60 robot competitions. Robots compete in volleyball, soccer, hockey, obstacle courses, maze running and other events. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration sponsors robot competitions for children, as does the BattleBots organization. Some robot competitions involve machines that are designed for specific tasks and include only transistors and diodes. Some of the machines are run by humans using remote control devices; others are true, autonomous robots, programmed for different tactics. None of the machines look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator" or even like humans at all. Some do indeed look fearsome, with visible weapons like spikes or saws or hammers. Others look innocent on the surface. Ziggo, a BattleBot built by Jonathan Ridder, shows no weapons but rotates at very high speeds, 160 miles an hour, slamming its opponents into walls and course hazards like circular saws that pop up out of the floor.
Mr. Calkins said he particularly admired Mecha Tentoumushi, built by Lisa Winter, which looked like a ladybug but clamped down on opponents, trapping them against an internal grinder. Mr. Calkins competes in robot sumo in the United States and teaches the sport at the Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco. He is also a part-time judge for BattleBots. He said Japanese competitors may spend up to $20,000 on a sumo robot. The devices, which according to official rules must weigh "less than three kilograms" (about six and a half pounds) compete in a ring, or dohyo, and try to push each other off. Weapons are not allowed, and both remote-controlled and autonomous robots are used. Most have vacuums to hold them to the surface, and the pull is so strong, said Mr. Calkins, that upside-down sumo matches have been held at the Exploratorium. To Mr. Calkins, robot sports in all their forms are about design and thinking. Age, weight, physical handicaps — none are significant. And watching a show like "BattleBots," you can quickly become annoyed with the announcers' inane chatter and puerile double-entendres and find yourself wishing for some real information. But perhaps the real appeal of robot battles is fairly simple, having less to do with Ms. Electra, intelligence and the intricacies of robot design than with the love-hate relationship consumers have with technology. With computers, hand-held locators guided by satellites, or Palm organizers, it is always a difficult question as to which desire is more fervent — to buy the glorious silvery thing that will transport you to gadget heaven or to deconstruct it as violently as possible when it fails to be the mechanism of your dreams.
The fighting robots operate in a world in which you don't have to choose. You get to have your bot and wreck it, too. The competitions celebrate and destroy the machines, which are praised and pulverized. Mr. Calkins agreed that the appeal of violence can't be underestimated. "People like violence," he said. "Any sporting event is violent. Even in bowling there's violence. There's pins being hurt." Yes, but it's not as much fun to see bowling pins fall as it is to watch a saw blade chew up a complicated machine. Now if instead of pins there were malfunctioning laptops, that might offer a taste of revenge. I asked Mr. Calkins whether the designers like to see the machines get wrecked. He hesitated. Well, he said, "they really like to see the other robot get wrecked." It all comes down to guilt-free violence. This is nothing new. I've just been reading a new translation of "Beowulf" by Seamus Heaney. Of course it's a wonderful literary classic, but I have to say that what really caught my attention was the moment when Beowulf ripped Grendel's arm out of its socket. The explicit description of skin and bone and ligament tearing apart left little to the imagination. Then, when he cut off Grendel's mother's head, the steaming blood of the demon melted the blade of his sword. You can't feel very sorry for demons, but you don't have to feel sorry at all for machines. The most fun may be smashing them yourself. (If you've never taken a hammer to a hair dryer or a radio — or better yet, an old computer — I highly recommend it.) But it's almost as good to watch them wreck each other, and then discuss, with the clinical detachment of an engineer, whether a vicious blade or a mighty hammer was the better design.
Maybe someday there will be robot football, and the teams will actually be able to destroy the opposing players. If minimalist robot sumo can fill a stadium, machine football — to the death — is a guaranteed winner. And it's O.K. They're just machines. Mr. Calkins also suggested that viewers should not be content with television, which does not do justice to the actual events. The good sportsmanship and helpfulness of the contestants to each other is remarkable, he said, which is nice. But what is really great, he said, is the aroma of mechanized combat: "There's no smell like it. It's kind of like walking into an automobile garage, but different. There's gasoline, metal being cut, the smell of sweat and excitement, and the fires." You don't get any of that with football or basketball, although I think nobody would be that surprised if it were introduced into hockey games. With fighting robots, the contestants sometimes literally burst into flames. Now that's entertainment.
Several TV shows feature competing robots: "BattleBots," on Comedy Central; "Robot Wars," on TNN; and "Robotica," on The Learning Channel.
"Robot Riots: The Good Guide to Bad Bots," by Alison Bing and Erin Conley (Barnes & Noble Books, 2001), an overview of fighting bots and the shows that have them.
The sites below provide information on robot competitions: www.robots.org/events.htm Information on robot sumo from the San Francisco Robotics Society of America. www.firstlegoleague.org A league for competitions using Lego robots. www.robotics.com/robots.html A roundup of robot sites maintained by Arrick Robotics, which sells material to robot hobbyists. Newsletters -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Subscribe to Circuits Sign up to receive a free weekly Circuits newsletter by e-mail, with technology news and tips and exclusive commentary by David Pogue, the State of the Art columnist. Daniel Longmire/Battlebots David Calkins A robot called Aoi Ryu ("Blue Dragon" in Japanese) was entered by David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America, in sumo competitions in San Francisco, San Jose, and Washington. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A deadly competition is about to begin as two opponents enter the ring. It’s a simple concept: two go in and only one comes out. That’s what happens every week on a show called Battle- Bots, where techno-geeks, average Joes, industrious kids, and even some machining folk duke it out using robots. But these aren’t the average industrial workhorse robots that weld or handle parts on a machining line. What a BattleBot does is inflict robot carnage, with an eye toward reducing its opponent to a smoldering wreck of metal.
For the uninitiated, BattleBots is on cable TV’s Comedy Central network. The show pits radio-controlled robots against each other in three-minute bouts, and the object of the competition is to ad- Ready Designers, engineers, and manufacturers build the perfect fighting machines. to
Mutant Robots team sponsor Cincinnati Machine made super heavyweight Diesector’s 7-lb hammers out of a 50-lb block of solid aluminum. September 2001 American Machinist 63 September 2001 American Machinist 63 minister as much damage as possible. Robots can use weapons such as hammers, pickaxes, rotary saws, and lifting arms to beat, stab, slice and dice, or flip their opponents into submission. The robots compete in four weight categories: super heavyweight, heavyweight, middleweight, and lightweight. All fights take place in the “BattleBox,” a 48-ft2 ring that brandishes such destructive hazards as kill saws that pop up unexpectedly from the floor and heavy hammers that pulverize any robots wimpy enough to be pushed into the corners of the ring. The show, which has a legion of fans, has drawn in competitors from a number of disciplines and industries — the metalworking field included. Among the participants are a machine tool builder, a CAD/CAM software developer, a machine shop, and several mechanical engineers. Team Mutant Robots: Tazbot and Diesector
Two BattleBot champions are Tazbot and Diesector, built by Donald Hutson, a mechanical engineer who works in the Machine Psychology lab for the Neurosciences Institute near San Diego. Tazbot, a heavyweight, is a wheeled robot with a pickax weapon mounted on a 360° rotating turret. It has aluminum diamond plate armor mounted to its main body by rubber shock absorbers.
Diesector, a super heavyweight, is a wheeled robot that can drive on both sides, an important defense against an opponent that attacks by flipping its competitors. The robot has a chrome-alloy tubular frame that acts as an exoskeleton. Between the tubes are 1/8-in.-thick Grade 5 titanium panels. Diesector’s weapons are two hammers that can rotate 360° and 40-lb front jaws that can bite down on the competition. The design of both robots is fairly complex. Hutson says the turret mechanism on Tazbot was challenging, while Diesector’s ability to drive both right side up and upside down while having its weapons work was equally difficult. In fact, the layout of the jaws on Diesector, says Hutson, was particularly tough. Two 1,000-lb linear actuators control and support the Bot’s hardened-steel jaws that open up to 43 in. and overbite themselves by 14 in. Fortunately, CAD software — in this case SolidWorks — helped in the design phase. But however sophisticated his design tools, Hutson’s machining resources were fairly primitive by most machine shop standards. He fashioned the jaws on the front of Diesector, for instance, using a bandsaw and a MIG welder. The jaws did what they needed to do, but Hutson says that his machining capabilities often limited his designs.
That recently changed, though, with the entrance of a new sponsor for his Mutant Robots team: Cincinnati Machine, Cincinnati. “It’s almost scary — the possibilities that have opened up with Cincinnati’s capabilities,” says Hutson. “It has really changed my way of thinking, because, you tend to design based on what capabilities you have. Now, I’m starting to see where I can make some pretty neat changes and enhance the robots in many ways by having CNC-machined parts made to exact tolerances out of solid chrome alloy or titanium.”
The first test of his new sponsor was a redesign of the hammer weapon on Diesector. Originally, the robot had two pickaxes, but Hutson scrapped that design soon after winning the super heavyweight championship. “I barely won the final fight,” he recalls. “I’m winning and all of a sudden, my weapon got stuck in the floor.” If it hadn’t been for his competitor’s “help” — basically it cut through Diesector’s arm during the fight — Diesector would not have been able to free itself. “That’s the product evolution; you come back and fix the things that are broken,” says Hutson. So, when Hutson redesigned Diesector, he decided to use hammers rather than pickaxes. And this is where Cincinnati stepped in. “Donald wanted a beefy hammer that could do some damage to his opponents,” recalls Kevin V.G. Bevan, vice president and general manager of Cincinnati’s Value Machine Business. The weight of the 12-in.-long hammers, however, was critical. To keep Diesector under the weight limit, they couldn’t weigh more than 7 lb each. And one other complication was that Cincinnati had to produce the hammers in just a couple of weeks. As soon as Cincinnati received the IGES file from Hutson, it had some of its applications engineers take a look at the design. One of the first recommendations they made was to hollow out the hammers to reduce their weight as solids, which was approximately 15 lb. “That was a great idea,” says Hutson. Once the weight problem was solved, Cincinnati went to work. The company machined the hammers out of a 50-lb block of solid aluminum using one of its 5-axis Arrow 1250 VMCs. “The billet was whittled down until it had the profile of the hammer,” comments Bevan. “Then we took it into some manual operations where our guys bored out the center of the hammers, machined the endcaps, and welded them on. Next, they drilled and inserted the carbide-tipped inserts on the ends of the hammer.” When Cincinnati finished the parts, it flew them out to Hutson at the BattleBots competition. “The day I was supposed to fight, I cut off the old ones and bolted on the new ones,” remarks Hutson. According to Bevan, sponsoring Hutson’s team has been more than just a way to get the Cincinnati name in front of a technically based audience. “It’s been good from a morale standpoint. Our employees work hard on a daily basis, but they don’t see the machines other than when they leave the facility. Here, they can see the parts they’ve made on Comedy Central along with about 2 million other people. And with our capability, we can help Donald improve his performance in the combat arena.” Cincinnati and Hutson are already discussing other parts the builder can machine, including rims and hubs for Tazbot and the wheels and jaws for Diesector.
Frenzy is a round robot made out of CNC machined 6061-T6 aircraft aluminum. It has a titanium battle ax that not only delivers a deadly blow but also rights the robot if a competitor flips it over. Frenzy’s designer is Patrick Campbell, a mechanical design engineer who works for Pace Technologies of Sun Valley, Calif. The company makes underwater camera and lighting equipment for Hollywood. His day job has him doing everything from design to manufacture, which has come in handy for building his BattleBot. Campbell built a prototype of Frenzy in 1996, and the following year, he redesigned the robot using Surfcam CAD/CAM software from Surfware, Westlake Village, Calif. “I learned Surfcam by building Frenzy,” he remembers. “I wasn’t using it at work, but I was watching over the shoulder of the guy who was doing it.” Today, Campbell designs a 3D solid model using Mechanical Desktop and processes the file with Surfcam. “Frenzy is completely modeled right now,” he says. “The whole thing about building a BattleBot is that you’re always changing it, always making something better or doing something different. So the neat thing is that I can go into the computer model and make changes.” Once Campbell has a design he’s happy with, he takes it into Surfcam and starts programming toolpaths. Occasionally, he makes design changes in the program, things like reducing part weight by adding cutouts and removing material. He then takes the Surfcam drawing back into Mechanical Desktop and updates his files. Besides improving his robot, Surfcam also helped him in another way. Surfware is now sponsoring Campbell’s robots and has given him the latest 3-axis version of its software. “They’ve also offered to get me up to speed on certain things, and I definitely plan on taking advantage of some programming lessons,” Campbell says. In addition to designing Frenzy, Campbell does almost all the machining on the Bot himself. And just as he learned Surfcam, he had to learn how to use a vertical milling machine. “I wasn’t a machinist before,” he says, “but I am one now.” Frenzy is comprised of components straight on one edge and contoured to follow the outside of the robot on the other. These complicated parts make it difficult to chuck and reference when adding new features.
Tripulta Raptor is one of the robots in Team Raptor’s stable of BattleBots. The robot, designed by Robert Pitzer, is a wheeled robot with an aluminum chassis and a hydraulic “squishing” aluminum/steel jaw and raptor-like claw. All component machining is done by Team Raptor’s sponsor, KLK Inc., a Phoenix-based jobshop serving the computer and electronics industries. The company has a reputation for completing difficult jobs in tight timeframes and is skilled in working with a range of materials, including stainless steel, aluminum, and high-tech plastics. KLK has about 13 different CNC machining centers and another half dozen turning centers. Frenzy, a round robot with a titanium battle ax, is sponsored by Surfware. The software company has supplied the robot’s builder with the latest 3-axis version of Surfcam. 66 American Machinist September 2001 66 American Machinist September 2001 The company also has a plastic-fabrication department, a sheetmetal area, and a welding department. And because it serves the electronics industry, it also has a Class 100 cleanroom for full turnkey assemblies and packaging. The shop got involved with BattleBots through a relationship between Pitzer and KLK’s father-and-son team of Kim and James Wilkinson. Kim is KLK’s vice president and general manager, and James is the shop foreman. When Pitzer approached KLK about building his robots, the Wilkinsons saw the opportunity as both an engineering challenge and just a fun way of using their machining expertise. Pitzer brings KLK a Pro/Engineering CAD file, which the shop changes into a .dxf file for transfer into its computer system. It then creates toolpaths for its milling and turning centers with Engineering Geometry Systems’ FeatureCAM software. When this is done, KLK goes to work on the robotic components, which are made out of a number of different materials, including stainless steels, coldrolled steel, titanium, aluminum, and plastics. Just as with the other robotic teams, Team Raptor has made a number of lastminute design changes, which KLK has had to deal with. One crunch time in particular, recalls Kim, had them working around the clock to reduce the weight on a robot. KLK typically computes the weight of each robotic component with Pro/E software. “But, with this robot, what we didn’t have was the weight of the batteries and the hydraulic lines,” says Kim. About 4 a.m., they finished assembling the robot, weighed it, and found it was 16 lb too heavy to make the weight class. continued on page 68 KLK Inc., a Phoenixbased jobshop, machined Team Raptor’s Tripulta Raptor. The robot’s aluminum/steel jaw was the most difficult machining challenge, according to KLK Vice President and General Manager Kim Wilkinson. Copyright 2001 Raptor Robotics LLC Image courtesy of Team Minus Zero (tmz.com) Patrick Campbell not only uses Surfcam CAD/CAM software in the design phase, but he also uses it to program toolpaths on individual components. “So we’re tearing it down, thinning out walls, webbing things, and drilling holes through it just to knock the weight out of it,” laughs Kim. “It had to be on the road about 9 a.m., and, amazingly, it was.” One of the more challenging parts KLK has tackled was the three front claws on the Tripulta Raptor. These aluminum claws are approximately 4-in. thick and have hardened steel tips. According to James, each claw was done in two setups on a 3-axis machining center. “We did one half, and then flipped it over and did the backside,” he explains. And because of weight limitations, KLK had to pocket out an enormous amount of material. “We started with a 125-lb block and finished with a 10-lb part,” says Kim. “That’s a lot of chips.”
Rookie robot Snipe was built by Charles Habermann, CAD/CAM/CAE specialist at PaR Systems Inc., Shoreview, Minn., a company that manufactures 5-axis robotic gantry systems for the aerospace, marine, and nuclear industries. The BattleBot, Habermann’s first, competes in the 59-lb lightweight category. “There are four different weight classifications in BattleBots, and as a designer, you have to choose which weight category you want to compete in,” he comments. “Assuming you have read the regulations, the rules are pretty simple: build what you want, make weight, and bludgeon your opponent to death — as safely as possible.” His first step in building Snipe was selecting a motor and battery. “I used a 12-V motor that weighed 13 lb and a nickel-metal-hydride battery that was 19 lb.” That, however, didn’t leave him much weight for the chassis, weapon, drive system, and controller. To overcome this difficulty, he constructed the robot out of mostly composite material, more specifically Hexcel aircraft flooring. He used some aluminum in critical areas, such as the drive train and motor mounts, and to make the robot’s weapon, an 8-lb arm that rotates at 1,500 rpm. Although Snipe didn’t do too well in its first fight — it flipped itself over after only 2 min in the ring — Habermann hasn’t given up on the competition or the methods he used to design and build the BattleBot. “I had an inherent flaw in my design, which was a high center of gravity and a narrow track width for the significant rotational inertia,” he says. “And I’m certain I’ll have another flaw in my new design, Tempest. That’s just the trials and tribulations of building a BattleBot. But that doesn’t change the fact that we used some pretty remarkable tools to manufacture Snipe.” Habermann designed Snipe with Surfcam’s 5-axis toolpath generator and surface modeler. Once he had a design he liked, he built a model out of 1/2-in. OSB. “This let me check fit and finish rather than use exstensive aircraft flooring, which can be expensive,” he says. After he was satisfied with the design, he cut individual components out of the aircraft flooring with one of his company’s 55,000-psi waterjet systems — a PaR-built 5-axis waterjet with an Ingersoll-Rand intensifier. Cutting the parts involved some tricky work for Habermann. “In the waterjet process, there are issues in regard to the kerf, taper, and taildrag,” he explains. These issues were magnified because the composite he was using had fiberglass skin on the top and bottom that sandwiched a 0.400-in. Nomex core. “The jet wants to fan out in between the two outside layers. This presents a design challenge because the entry is clean, but the exit is not. In fact, it’s sort of serrated. You have to take that into consideration when you’re designing your components.” AM continued from page 66 68 American Machinist September 2001 68 American Machinist September 2001 We want your feedback Article is interesting... Circle 575 For product or technical information on this topic... Circle 576 For more information on robots...visit www.americanmachinist.com Daniel Longmire, BattleBots Inc. Snipe is a lightweight robot made out of mostly composite material. Creator Charles Habermann cut many of Snipe’s parts on a 5-axis, 55,000-psi waterjet cutting system.
One unforeseen benefit of the BattleBots competition is that it has raised the profile of the manufacturing and engineering professions, giving them a shot of sexy robot appeal. Part of the reason why, says Charles Habermann, is that the competitions are a fun, but practical application of mathematics, robotics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. “You have to know a lot of different disciplines to manufacture a BattleBot,” he states. Donald Hutson agrees, adding that the competition incorporates engineering skills, and actually battletests them, a sure hook for the mechanically minded. “I get e-mails from kids all the time,” he says, “and they ask what software I’m using, what kind of titanium, and how they can machine it. They want to know how I built my robots and how they can build one themselves.
” Patrick Campbell has also witnessed this excitement. “It’s great, seeing 16-year-old kids interested in learning about machining, welding, and all the related things you need to know to build a BattleBot. I think it’s a better way of spending your time than playing video games. You’re forced to build something with your hands, and with that goes a lot of learning and appreciation for the guys that do it everyday.” The competition has even changed how some adults view machining. Just ask Hutson, who had to learn how to machine parts to build his BattleBots. “Design and manufacturing are two different entities,” he comments. “You can come up with the greatest ideas in the world, but you still have to figure out how to machine those parts. And generally, engineers work on one side — where they are doing this crazy design — and then the machinists are saying ‘This is impossible; you can’t make this piece. Why don’t you do it this way?’ There’s always been this battle back and forth, and I think it’s great to blend the lines between the two.” Changing the image of manufacturing
Season 4.0 Update!
Cincinnati Machine Provides New Weapon for Diesector in Upcoming Season New Bumper Will Help Defend Against Spin-Bots CINCINNATI, OH (October 29, 2001) - As the exclusive machine tool sponsor for Mutant Robots, Cincinnati Machine has recently supplied a new weapon for Donald Hutson's "Diesector" for the upcoming BattleBots competition in November. Mutant Robots, based in San Diego, CA, is one of the leading competitors featured on the top rated Comedy Central television show "BattleBots" (airs Tuesdays at 10PM, Saturdays at 5PM and 11PM, Sundays at 10AM EST). Cincinnati Machine, a leading manufacturer of machine tools, initially supplied Diesector's twin 6-pound aluminum hammers for May 2001 competition. The yellow hammers helped the Battlebot pound its way right into the super heavyweight semi-final round. The sponsor has now taken it one step further. Cincinnati Machine's Scott Kline holds the completed bumper to be used on Diesector. To help protect Diesector against rapidly-rotating "spin bots", Mutant Robots and Cincinnati Machine teamed up to design and build a 5-ft detachable aluminum bumper. The rugged bumper is attached to the back end of the robot and will serve as the safety barrier to the initial blows delivered by spin bots. "In addition to having Cincinnati logos present on the robots, machining these unique weapons is another great way to showcase our equipment and our brand", says Kevin V.G. Bevan, vice president and general manager of Cincinnati Machine's Value Machine Business. "Our employees and products help this team achieve success, which serves as a great testimonial for all of our potential customers." The next Battlebot competition takes place November 4 through November 11 in San Francisco, California. The new season will begin airing on Comedy Central in early 2002. From left to right, Wayne Adams (finishing), Brandon Grooms (welding) and Donnie Wilson (rolling) were the fabricators who worked on the bumpers. Cincinnati Machine is a leading global manufacturer and supplier of CNC machine toolssuch as turning centers, vertical machining centers, horizontal machining centers/cells, 5-axis machining centers, universal machining centers, profilers, routers and composites processing equipment. Industries served include aerospace, heavy equipment, fluid power, and automotive, as well as small job shops. For more information on any of these products, call 1-877-CINMACH, (246-6224), fax us at 513-752-9800
Neurally Organized Mobile Adaptive Device (NOMAD) CLICK HERE FOR PICTURE!
A 2-foot-tall aluminum cylinder named NOMAD rolls toward a small block and aims its video camera downward. NOMAD sees a polka-dot pattern on top and detects a beeping sound from within. This will taste bad, NOMAD thinks, correctly predicting that the block lacks the electrical conductivity it regards as pleasing to the palate.
It backs away, then finds a block with stripes instead of dots and a higher-pitched beep. This will taste good, it decides, and it extends a gripper to lift the block off the floor and confirm its high conductivity. A potential precursor to a generation of smart machines, NOMAD -- for Neurally Organized Mobile Adaptive Device -- is testing theories of how different levels of the brain function in perceiving the world around us.
It is not a robot, and while its wanderlust and "taste" preference for blocks with higher conductivity are part of its innate wiring, it has no program to favor a certain pattern or beep. What it does have is a brain -- or at least the simulation of one -- and it has learned the connection between conductivity and other attributes of the blocks completely on its own.
Housed on the third floor of The Neurosciences Institute on Torrey Pines Mesa, NOMAD is linked by wireless modem to a computer where a set of equations simulate brain activity: up to 1 million neural connections. The research seeks insights into the behavior associated with higher brain functions: perception, movement, thought, memory.
It may also lead to smarter machines, even if the science team doesn't yet know what those will be. "One of the most important tasks of a brain is to label an unlabeled world," said Dr. Gerald Edelman, the Nobel Prize-winning founder and director of the institute, who first conceived of NOMAD about 16 years ago.
"The categories by which species organize . . . are not given by a little dictionary or a list of names. "To truly probe the complex thinking that develops such organization, "you really can't just do experimental work, you need theoretical work," said Jeffrey L. Krichmar, an associate fellow at the institute and head of the four-member team that runs NOMAD through its paces. That means attaching the brain to a body.
At first glance, the device might seem less sophisticated than some of the electronic devices found in toy stores. But NOMAD is "taught nothing about its environment," said chief engineer James A. Snook. "It's like a child born with no knowledge, and everything that it does is something that it's learned by moving around."
Together, NOMAD and its brain form a system that Edelman named Darwin, after the British naturalist whose theory of natural selection heavily influences his own neural theories. Reflecting an evolution that dates back to when the institute was in New York, the current system -- in operation for about two years -- is Darwin 7.
NOMAD's simulated brain is "more sophisticated, probably, than a horseshoe crab, but much less sophisticated than many insects," Edelman said. "Nonetheless, it's really patterned on higher-order brains," he said. "What we make it for is to try to understand all the different levels of brain function at the same time. "The computer simulation allows the NOMAD team to look at every single cell and synapse in NOMAD's brain.
There's a set of equations for activity in the neuronal units; another set for the connections between them and how they might change according to NOMAD's experiences. Using four processors, the computer works through them in 100 to 200 milliseconds, giving NOMAD the ability to react as soon as it sees something. Like living organisms, Krichmar said, NOMAD was given a phenotype: certain innate attributes, encoded by genes, that can be seen in interactions with its environment. A newborn baby, for instance, shows a predilection for moving its legs and grasping things.
NOMAD's phenotype is to move toward high-contrast objects and pick them up, while having an aversion to poorly conductive materials. "On his own, he figures out the rest," Krichmar said. "He figures out which patterns are associated with the good taste and which sounds are associated with the good taste. "It's similar to work that Ivan Pavlov was doing a century ago -- conditioning dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell when they learned it was associated with food. Memory erased
Doug Moore, an intern and mechanical engineering student at University California San Diego, spends about 20 hours a week running experiments with NOMAD. "A lot of it is just repetition," he said, "getting variation (from) different results. "NOMAD's memory is regularly erased so that new experiments can be tested from scratch -- adjusting the volume of the beeping, for instance.
Over the course of a few hours, however, the researchers can readily see NOMAD learn from its encounters with different types of blocks. While it does make mistakes -- picking up a nonconductive block or ignoring a conductive one -- it makes fewer mistakes as it spends more time looking at blocks.
It learns that there is a difference between horizontal and vertical stripes, but that both are associated with good "taste. "Sampling as few as 10 blocks of each variety often is enough for NOMAD's brain to connect the dots of sight, sound and taste.
"It's different from robotics, because it's not doing the same thing over and over again," said Krichmar, who was exploring similar work at George Mason University in Virginia when he was hired by The Neurosciences Institute two years ago. "It's learning from its experience, and it never does the same thing twice," he said. "You can't test theories of the brain without having a body, without closing the loop and putting it in an environment."
Different approach The NOMAD team sees its focus on the brain as considerably different from the research in robotics and artificial intelligence conducted at such institutions as MIT, Caltech and USC. Advanced as it may be, Snook said, some of the work falls into the category of computer science, and the use of a mobile "platform" isn't always essential to the work.
Professor Rolf Pfeifer, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, said The Neurosciences Institute is doing "really pioneering work." "The brain is there to guarantee the survival of the organism," said Pfeifer, who has visited the NOMAD lab while pursuing similar work in a field called biorobotics. "So studying the brain in the context of . . . a device that behaves in the real world is really essential."
As NOMAD goes about its business, its brain activity is represented on a computer monitor outside its enclosure. The top row of images shows the activity of its visual system, the second row shows hearing. Other displays react to NOMAD's concept of taste, and the researchers can see those parts of its brain "light up" before it picks up a block to check its conductivity -- proof that NOMAD's activity is shaping its brain and allowing it to generalize.
They've also seen NOMAD ignore the visual stimulus, apparently confident that it can judge the conductivity of a block by sound alone. NOMAD has two brothers so that engineer Donald Hutson's periodic repair and upgrade work doesn't bring a halt to the research.
Not a computer? Edelman, who doesn't hold to the notion that the human brain is a computer, believes NOMAD has helped illustrate how perception and categorization work in the brain. It may lead to new ways of interpreting brain imaging and become "the harbinger of brain-based devices," he said. Snook said the NOMAD team believes "there are tremendous applications for this technology" in creating intelligent machines. But "what they are, we don't know."
Using the "R" word, Pfeifer concurs. "I think we will probably have learning robots that can . . . make distinction in the real world," he said. Considered somewhat clunky and aimless in its movements, NOMAD is due to become more sophisticated in coming months as it acquires new sensors and expanded neural area.
It will be able to rotate its head for a form of peripheral vision. Also, it will acquire an inner ear, Krichmar said. Humans need it for balance; NOMAD will use it "to understand how he's moving, rotating and accelerating throughout the world so he'll be able to plan his movements a little better," Krichmar said. And with that, The Neurosciences Institute will say hello to Darwin 8.
Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
The latest from the powers that be at Comedy Central TECHNICAL EXPERT BILL NYE, COMIC DUO JASON AND RANDY SKLAR AND "BAYWATCH" BABE DONNA D'ERRICO NAMED TO COMEDY CENTRAL'SÒ "BATTLEBOTS" BROADCAST TEAM PASADENA,
"BattleBots" is no laughing matter?or
is it? Picture this, thousands of screaming fans, dramatic lighting, leather-clad
men, a "BattleBox" with glass as thick as the windows on a space shuttle,
vicious weapons, destructive devises, intimidating music. All this for
the purpose of a fight to the ultimate death of robots! Technical expert
Bill Nye, comedic twins Randy and Jason Sklar (MTV's "Apartment 2F"),
and "Baywatch" babe Donna D'Errico comprise the "BattleBot" broadcast
team covering the competition from "Bot" creation, to weigh-in, to battle,
to ringside action.
Jason and Randy Sklar arrived in New York
in 1996 and began their comic career in the off-Broadway productions of
"Double Agents," and "Flamingo Lounge." Spotted by MTV talent executives,
they developed the show "Apartment 2F" for the music channel. The sitcom
was based around the brothers' lives and their experience living in New
York City. The Sklars have also appeared on COMEDY CENTRAL's "Premium
Blend" and HBO's "Comedy Showcase with Louie Anderson." "BattleBots" is
a COMEDY CENTRAL production in association with First Television and TalentWorks,
Inc. After 18 years in the entertainment industry, Mack and Bradley Anderson
formed First Television in 1996. First Television has produced "COMEDY
CENTRAL's Vs.," "Omba Mokomba" (The Disney Channel), "Paranormal Borderline"
(UPN), "Real Vampires Exposed" (UPN Special), "Psi-Factor" hosted by Dan
Aykroyd (syndicated and distributed by Eyemark Entertainment) as well
as other programs for UPN, Disney Channel, FOX, ABC, Eyemark and Buena
Forget Iron Mike; heavyweight robots are ready to rumble
Bruce V. Bigelow
Donald Hutson and his robot Tazbot In a vocational arts classroom at Rancho Bernardo High School, Dan Rupert happily demonstrates the lethal power of "Malicious Mischief," the armored robot he's been building for the past six months. "Our weapon of choice is this concrete spike, with a 20-pound sledgehammer behind it," says Rupert, beaming. The 34-year-old teacher then shows how his robot uses an automobile starter and a garage-door spring to pull the spike back like a catapult. When he triggers the weapon, the spike smashes down in an executioner's arc, punching a nickel-sized hole through a piece of three-fourths-inch plywood.
With the help of some students, Rupert designed his 200-pound, $1,500 robot to wreak havoc on other radio-controlled gladiators that will be meeting in combat this weekend at Cal State Long Beach. Dubbed "BattleBots," the two-day event offers the sort of high-pitched screams and steel-against-steel clashes that once drew spectators to the Roman Colosseum. People "want to see something that can go in and tear apart other robots in an aggressive manner -- they want superheroes," said 31-year-old Donald Hutson of San Diego. Hutson has spent two years and more than $7,000 to perfect his robot. "People want to see expensive things break, for entertainment," Hutson says. Tazbot resembles a tank that uses a pickax instead of a gun. It employs evers to flip over its robotic opponents and utilizes other "top secret weapons that are interchangeable, depending on who I'm going up against,"
Hutson said. San Diego's two BattleBots contestants are among 70 entries scheduled to compete in three weight divisions -- kilobot, megabot and gigabot -- that include one-on-one duels and a "robot rumble" scheduled for Sunday evening. Hutson's and Rupert's opponents include engineers from special-effects laboratories such as Industrial Light and Magic and Disney Imagineering. "This is my first time entering, but I decided to go right for the heavyweight class," said Rupert, who teaches computer-assisted design at Rancho Bernardo High. "That's partly because I kept adding things and it kept getting heavier and heavier."
Metalic melee BattleBots' organizers hope their aluminum Armageddon will upstage "Robot Wars," a similar metalic melee held in recent years at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center. Robot Wars was formed in 1994 as a joint venture between Marc Thorpe, who had the idea, and Steve Plotnicki of New York-based Profile Holdings, which operates Profile Records Inc. But a legal dispute between Thorpe and Plotnicki short-circuited the event more effectively than a pneumatic punch in the solar plexus. Plotnicki, who planned to revive Robot Wars this year, tried to block BattleBots in April by asking a federal judge in New York to halt the event. But U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff denied the request, ruling on June 15 that Plotnicki had failed to show how BattleBots' rival event would cause irreparable harm to Robot Wars. Since then, BattleBots' sponsors sped forward with their plans, luring many robotic entries that previously had "fought to the final spark" in past Robot Wars.
BattleBots' organizers hope their contest will also draw thousands of spectators willing to buy tickets that range from $25 to $35 per session, or $45 to $65 for an all-day pass. All of the elimination rounds will be held in a Plexiglas arena erected in the Long Beach Pyramid on the California State University campus. The arena itself is equipped with pop-up spikes, saws and other surprise weapons intended to add hazards and thrills to each contest. The robotic gladiators, equipped with saws, hammers, grinders and axes, were designed to destroy each other in one-on-one death matches and in a "Robot Rumble" scheduled as BattleBots' Sunday evening finale. The rules are pretty flexible, but they preclude such weapons as explosives, flame throwers, chemicals, radio-jammers or water guns. Robots can shoot "projectiles," but any bullets or missiles have to be "tethered."
"Basically, you're supposed to smash or ram your opponents to death," Rupert said. "We think it deserves mass attention," says Greg Munson, a spokesman for BattleBots' promoter Trey Roski. "We think it's the sport of the future." There's irony in those words, as Roski is the scion of Edward P. Roski Jr., who is one of the biggest real estate developers in Los Angeles and part owner of the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. Trey Roski is not going for "old sports," Munson says. He's going for "new sports."
At 34, Trey Roski says he's spent close to $1 million for the BattleBots event, and he has even more grandiose plans for the future. "Some day, I want to see this held out in the desert with 2,000-pound robots just going at it," Roski says. "There would be no people. Just TV cameras. "Family fun If Roski's vision sounds like a scene out of "The Road Warrior," then he may someday promote BattleBots' mayhem as the Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rollah. In the meantime, BattleBots' promoter hopes to hold four more BattleBot competitions around the country this year, including one this November during the annual Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas. After that, the promoter wants to put on 12 BattleBot events next year and 30 in 2001.
"It's very dangerous and destructive," Roski gushed. "But on the other hand, it's safe. It's safe for the family. It's safe for the audience. It's safe for everyone to come and enjoy all this destruction. People don't get hurt, but you get all that stuff that people want to see." But like other sporting events, Roski says, "The money in this is not in the event itself. It's in the pay-per-view TV rights and in the toys. "Roski says he looks forward to someday licensing the robot designs of BattleBots' contestants to create radio-controlled toys "with dumbed-down weapons that will be perfectly safe." He's even invited representatives from Hasbro and Mattel to BattleBots, saying archly, "I seated them right next to each other." Someday, then, kids may be operating radio-controlled toys that resemble killer robots like "Vlad the Impaler," "Kill-O-Amp 2," "Ginsu" and"Killerhurtz."
Descriptions of many BattleBots contestants are featured on the event's Web site, battlebots.com>http://www.battlebots.com <http://www.<STRONG>, which includes links to creators' own Web sites. For example, Carlo Bertocchini's Web site features pictures of his new and improved "Biohazard," which looks like an armored mattress equipped with a mechanic's jack. Bertocchini, whose design won the heavyweight division in the 1996 Robot Wars, also provides an explanation for his obsession. "Why do I do it?" he writes. "I could give you a highbrow answer like `creative expression,' but the real answer is this: It is the first step in my plot for world conquest and domination, which is motivated by my desire to impress Jodie Foster."
BattleBots A Two-Day Contest of Robotic Gladiators. 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Pyramid, California State University, Long Beach; 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, CA. $25 to $65. Call (562) 985-4949 or (888)
Technical knockouts: Robots take to the ring
Devorah Knaff Devorah Knaff is a Riverside-based free-lance writer. 17-Aug-1999 Tuesday LONG BEACH -- The show started in the parking lot, where a pair of women -- one with emerald and the other with amethyst tresses -- were arranging chains around their waists and leather around their necks. When they entered The Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach a few minutes later, they fit right in. Saturday was the opening of a two-day event titled "Battlebots," described as a contest of robotic warriors. The action took place in an arena surrounded by high, clear plastic walls. Fans sat on bleachers, watching the action on video monitors and cheering whenever one battling robot knocked pieces off its opponent. Crew members stood on the sidelines, clutching caffeinated drinks, socket wrenches, WD-40 and soldering guns.
The radio-controlled robots involved are not the cute, cuddly kind that cleaned house for the Jetsons or joked with the crew of "Lost in Space. "These robots are designed to destroy other robots without being smashed in turn. Most of them look like tanks, with heavy metal shells and weapons -- hammers and spikes and rammers -- attached to their front ends. Many of them are ridden by dolls or stuffed animals -- the cheap, oddly colored kind with facial expressions that are just a little off -- that you find at swap meets or win at carnivals. In almost every match, these plush riders would get quickly knocked off and then repeatedly run over by the battling robots to accompanying cheers of delight from the audience, which also cheered gleefully whenever a robot lost an arm or other key part or was flipped onto its back to writhe and die like a turtle in the sun. But it wasn't all force majeure.
"It's important to have a sense of style with your robot," said Donald Hutson, one of the two San Diego competitors at the meet. "You're trying to win, but you're also trying to get audience approval. "A robot that gets the job done but has no personality, well, it's not the kind that is going to capture people's imagination. And that's important down the line. I mean, you get a good robot that is also appealing -- you might end up having it made into a toy." Hutson's "Tazbot" robot proved to have both endurance and audience appeal in its matches over the weekend, winning four matches before succumbing in the fifth. And he might well have won in the fifth, if the opposing robot hadn't, through an extraordinary chance, managed to depress Tazbot's power switch.
"It was just something that I never thought about happening. I guess that it just goes to show you that you can have all the technology in the world -- and something little is what gets you in the end." Dan Rupert, a teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School, understood this all-for-the-want-of-a-penny- horseshoe-nail principle going into the contest, his first. "There are basic elements of a well-designed robot, and those are what you go in with. But there's a big element of chance. You can have this almost-perfect robot, but if your one weakness happens to come up against a robot that has a matching strength, then you've had it." Rupert, whose "Malicious Mischief" has a compact body with a long, hammerlike arm sticking out in front, won two of his four matches, and said he was pleased with how things went. Both competitors promised to be back, as soon as their metallic gladiators were patched up.
"This is what it's all about," Hutson said. "Watching the pieces fly and then putting it all back together."
Battle of the Bots
by Michael Kaplan
first appeared: Fast Company issue 32 page 308
Louis. Marciano. Ali. Those were the great heavyweight fighters of the 20th century. But they were lightweights compared with the 21st century's new breed of fighters: Rhino. Mechadon. Biohazard. Introducing ... The robot rumble.
A moment later, the bell sounds, and the fighters charge each other. Rhino unleashes a vicious uppercut to Ronin's midsection, and the shrieking clang of metal slamming into metal reverberates throughout the packed arena.
That's right -- metal on metal.
Rhino and Ronin are battle-tested robots, lethal and completely legal. Forget fisticuffs. Spinning saw blades and steel-splitting axes are the weapons of choice for these heavy-metal contenders. Unlike Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, the bots' flesh-and-blood counterparts who fought just a week earlier at Vegas's Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, a bot is never satisfied with a mere KO. The goal of every robot is to obliterate its opponent.
This, after all, is BattleBots, a single-elimination tournament that rumbles into venues as different as the SportPark in Vegas and Stanford University's basketball court. Sporting names like Tazbot and Kill-O-Amp, these mechanized fighters are hand tooled by special- effects wizards from such companies as Industrial Light & Magic and Teradyne.
Think of BattleBots as a kind of demolition derby for geeks. Working with the care and precision of a heavyweight champion's cornermen, the bot builders cart their fighters into a ring that's dubbed the "BattleBox." Ropes won't contain these robots, which can weigh nearly 500 pounds. Instead, the ring is encased in bulletproof glass, to protect the crowd from hurtling robot parts. Its floor is made of reinforced steel and is outfitted with saws whose whirling blades slice and dice any contender that's unfortunate enough to roll over them. Robot operators -- or jockeys -- stand outside the BattleBox, using lap-size remote-control units to maneuver their bots.
Rhino's prime weapon is a CO2-powered pneumatic battering ram that attacks with 14,000 pounds of hitting force -- enough power to pierce a Humvee. Hanging from the bot's backside like a malevolent tail is a 9-pound hunk of cast iron, which could tear apart a person's leg when spinning at 40 MPH. Rhino's opponent, Ronin, boasts tank-tread wheels and a two-foot-long razor that protrudes from its front.
As the two bots collide, Rhino fires its battering ram into Ronin's tread. Ronin reverses furiously and then charges, sinking its blade into Rhino's armor. But Rhino works itself loose and smacks Ronin with its blackjack of a tail, disabling one of Ronin's wheels. After three minutes of fury, the bout ends, and the three judges declare Rhino the winner.
Reason Bradley, who is 27, carts the victorious Rhino from the ring. Bradley and his partners are pleased to have notched a win, but they're disappointed about leaving Ronin in one piece. Says the burly, goateed Bradley, doing his best imitation of Muhammad Ali's doggerel: "We want to take out the opposition, so they can't get back into the competition."
What's Bradley's secret for competing successfully in the winner-take-all world of battling bots? The first step, he says, is to get in plenty of roadwork.
Prior to his championship bout in Las Vegas, heavyweight Lennox Lewis set up training camp in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Two weeks before BattleBots, Team Rhino sequestered its fighter in a metal shop in Sausalito, California. Although Lewis battled a succession of sparring partners, Rhino honed its ramming skills by battering a hapless Dumpster in a parking lot late at night. But here the similarity ends: Even on a bad day, Lewis is unlikely to spout motor oil and shoot sparks -- which is exactly what Rhino does when its circuits misfire.
Fortunately, Bradley, Rhino's cut man, can adeptly handle such touchy robotic temperaments. Bradley grew up next to a sprawling junkyard, and he has long been obsessed with transforming scavenged parts into big, dangerous machines. "I started out making flamethrowers," he says with a shrug, adding that Rhino's early days were fraught with risky mishaps. "A couple of times, the robot spun out at Mach 2, and we couldn't turn it off. We had to wait for the battery to die. Having so much inertia spinning around can be awfully unnerving."
While it's the bots that vie for glory, sending them into battle is ultimately a team endeavor -- and Rhino's cornermen are among the best on the circuit. By day, they work at R. Rabkin & Associates Inc., a Sausalito-based company that makes chip-testing equipment for the likes of Intel and Motorola. Bradley is a machinist. David Estrich, 40, an electrical-design engineer, handles the robot's circuitry. Machinist Chris Paretich, 34, specializes in intricate welding details. And Bobby Besuner, 33, does stress analysis on the bot when he's not working as a mechanical engineer. In addition, 27-year-old Alexander Rose, who is executive director of the Long Now Foundation, in San Francisco, helped to design and build Rhino.
By night, they work on Rhino. Even CEO Rich Rabkin, 38, drops in to turn a few screws and deliver pizza when the guys are pulling a late one. Rabkin is so pumped for the upcoming battle that he closes the office and accompanies the team to Vegas, sending them into battle with a brief but memorable pep talk: "All eyes are on us, boys, so we'd better kick ass." Such fervor is understandable: Rhino is going up against bots backed by some of Rabkin's biggest competitors, and an incalculably rich purse is at stake -- office bragging rights.
Bots Invade Vegas, Geeks Freak
A day before the opening fight, 32 teams from London to Los Angeles descend on Vegas. The eve of BattleBots is not unlike a weigh-in for boxers, when the combatants check one another out -- and attempt to psych out their opponents. In the parking lot outside the arena, Team Rhino congregates around a bot called Nightmare, which is operated by Jim Smentowski, 30, a computer animator for Industrial Light & Magic. Nightmare resembles an enormous tricycle with a raised front wheel that's made of aluminum and spiked with stainless-steel teeth. At the last BattleBots, Smentowski was forbidden to run the wheel in an upward direction.
"The wheel spins at 300 MPH, and the BattleBox had no roof," Smentowski explains. "The organizers feared that the robot might start launching parts into the crowd." But this time, the BattleBox sports a roof -- which means he's free to unleash all of Nightmare's destructive power.
Smentowski eyes the tables inside the tent and locks onto Blendo. "I really want to see what we can do to that bot," he says, glowering a bit. "Blendo destroyed our first robot, Hercules, the first time out." He catches the aggro in his voice and quickly insists that outside the ring, no one holds a grudge. "But in the ring," he continues, "it's something else. It's robots hating robots."
Sweet Dreams: Rhino Meets Nightmare
For its next fight, Rhino will go up against Nightmare and its upward-spinning, spike-studded wheel. The bell sounds, and the bots collide. As Nightmare works in close, its furiously spinning wheel shaves a chunk of metal off Rhino's body. Then Rhino takes a run at Nightmare's lethal wheel -- the equivalent of a go-for-broke punch. Estrich fires the battering ram, which hits the wheel. But the wheel is spinning so fast that it breaks off the ram's tip, which zips across the ring and smashes into the bulletproof wall. Rhino spends the fight's final minute smacking its tail against Nightmare.
Rhino is declared the winner, but the bot is not unscathed. Team Rhino hustles its robot to the pit. Bradley takes a screwdriver to the broken battering ram, while Paretich drills into Rhino's body to extract an impacted bolt. When an event organizers stops to ask whether Rhino is ready for its next fight, the guys can only laugh.
This is no joke: Team Rhino has just 40 minutes to repair and recharge its fighter for the next bout. A win would mean that Rhino makes the finals. Bradley grabs a battery-powered saw and sends sparks flying as he chisels a replacement battering ram. He reattaches the ram, throws off his sunglasses, and declares, "Damn. We are pretty tweaked."
Rabkin translates: "A piece that holds the battering ram in place has snapped. We can still fire the ram, but it might break loose from the bot." In that case, the ram would fly across the ring like a pneumatically launched spear. The team probably should report the potential problem to the judges, but Rabkin nixes that idea. "It's better to beg for forgiveness," he declares, "than to ask for permission."
Team Rhino rolls its fighter into the ring, where it will face fearsome Vlad the Impaler, whose prime weapon is a pair of forkliftlike blades. Bradley delivers a quick pep talk: "If we hit Vlad while both bots are moving, we'll be able to nail it." Paretich counters skeptically, "If Rhino moves, I'll be surprised. If the ram actually works, I'll be elated."
In fact, the battering ram instantly punches a deep hole into Vlad's body. But then Vlad uses its forklift blades to flip Rhino. Fortunately, Rhino is designed to run upside down. Unfortunately, Bradley has never quite gotten the hang of driving in reverse. Vlad pins Rhino against the wall and then drops it onto one of the spinning saws that rise out of the floor. Sparks fly as the saw's blade bites into Rhino. The crowd roars with approval.
Needless to say, Rhino is eliminated from the contest. But it still manages to come in third overall, establishing itself as a real-deal contender.
As the crew carts Rhino to a U-Haul, Jim Smentowski, Nightmare's creator, checks out the bot that defeated his fighter. And he produces a peace offering -- a bolt ripped from Nightmare during its battle with Rhino. Bradley looks at the gift appreciatively and then hands Smentowski the tip of the battering ram that Nightmare broke off Rhino.
"There's something about looking at a piece of machinery that went through a violent collision," says Bradley, sounding like a lovesick character from "Crash," that creepy David Cronenberg movie. "You see shafts that have snapped off, teeth missing from its gears. Creating a machine that can do this is very appealing."
Then, like a cornerman draping a towel over his fighter, Bradley covers Rhino with a tarp and hauls it into the truck, proud that his bot has wreaked a satisfactory degree of havoc.
Freelancer Michael Kaplan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) also contributes to "Details" and "SmartMoney."
If you're thinking about building a battling bot -- or even if you just want to witness a robot rumble firsthand -- you can get an up-to-the-minute primer by visiting the BattleBots Web site. A news section keeps the BattleBots community apprised of new developments in robo-world and of upcoming bouts; there are also links to the bulletin board at Delphi Forums Inc., where contestants and fans swap secrets on armor, circuitry, and tactics for getting a 480-pound fighting machine past airport security.
Coordinates: BattleBots, http://www.battlebots.com
Biohazard was arguably the most feared robot at BattleBots in Las Vegas. Going into that event, it was undefeated in one-on-one competition. Its jockey, Carlo Bertocchini, a 39-year-old mechanical designer at Raychem Corp., in Menlo Park, California, is generally regarded as extremely resourceful and tactically agile. He knows that even robots need a battle plan. And while Biohazard was upset during its one-on-one match in Vegas, Bertocchini regrouped and ensured that his fighter came back and won the tournament's finale, the Robot Rumble. Here are three of Bertocchini's favorite ploys for winning at the zero-sum game of battling bots.
Understand your opponent. "You won't win if you don't do your homework. If I'm fighting Blendo, which spins at 80 MPH and uses kinetic energy to blast other bots, I know that it takes Blendo time to get its flywheel up to speed. So as soon as the bell sounds, I get Biohazard to charge Blendo and to try to flip it over, before Blendo can inflict any damage."
Take your knocks. "If Biohazard's going up against a robot that needs time to reload its weapon -- like Blendo with its spinning wheel -- Biohazard will take a few shots and then hit back while its opponent is momentarily defenseless."
Design for defense. "I specifically designed Biohazard so that it has a low apron ( made of titanium ), which covers its moving parts. Ultimately, a robot can't lose if you can't hurt it."
Coordinates: Carlo Bertocchini, Webmaster@robotbooks.com
Sidebar: Anatomy of a Battlebot
Many robot operators think that Mark Setrakian, 34, who has designed and built mechanical puppets for films like "Men in Black" and the remake of "Mighty Joe Young," has built the bot of the future. Most battling bots are designed to roll on wheels. Setrakian's robot, dubbed Mechadon, actually walks on the points of its claws -- which enables it to operate with an almost balletlike elegance. Here, Setrakian delivers a close-up look at his heavy-metal fighter.
Torso: "Mechadon's body is divided into three segments, each of which works independently of the others."
Legs: "I use custom-designed interface cards to help control Mechadon's six steel legs and its claws, which can grab and hold another bot."
Body Armor: "I've made Mechadon out of aluminum, which is both lighter and thicker than steel. Aluminum buys time against robots like Ginsu, which has carbide-tipped saws."
Midsection: "The power pack is housed in Mechadon's center section. Most robots run on 24 volts of electricity; Mechadon uses 160 volts, which gives it more speed and force."
Claws: "Mechadon's claws are made of steel. Their tips consist of a high-strength alloy and are extremely sharp -- not unlike a steel pencil, with 400 pounds of robot energy pushing down on it."
Coordinates: Mark Setrakian, email@example.com
Coordinates: Mondo-tronics Robot Store, http://www.robotstore.com
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