The following article appeared in the February 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine:
(You may still be able to view the Fast Company online article here)
Battle of the Bots
by Michael Kaplan
Photographs by James Smolka
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.
The two fighters prepare to square off, as a tuxedoed ring announcer shouts into a microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner, weighing in at 208 pounds and direct from a third-place finish at the Long Beach Pyramid -- Rhino!" The crowd of 1,700 fight fanatics, which has squeezed into All-American SportPark arena in Las Vegas, leaps to its feet and goes berserk. "And in this corner, tipping the scales at 198 pounds, trained by Los Angeles's notorious Team Sinister -- Ronin!"
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.
Rhino Starts Training Camp, Sausalito Hides Dumpsters
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.
Rhino's on a Roll, but Vlad Is Bad
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."
Action Item: bots.com
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
Sidebar: Battle Plan
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
Sidebar: Bots in a Box
At one time, the only people building robots were those who could make the machines from scratch. Not anymore. For the past few years, scores of robot-building kits have come on the market, and many of them are available online from the Mondo-tronics Robot Store. Although none of the following models are going to win matches at BattleBots, they will provide an entry into the world of amateur robotics.
Hyper Peppy Robot Kit ( $29.95 ), from OWI. "This is one of our simplest robots -- no soldering required," says Jason Cooper, 23-year-old vice president of Mondo-tronics. "It has three wheels and looks like a mini-tricycle with a spherical dome. It also comes with a sound sensor that makes the robot react whenever you clap your hands."
Mobile 5 Axis Robotic Arm Kit ( $250 ), from Lynxmotion Inc. Resembling a construction crane on wheels, this robot has an arm that extends to 14 inches, grabs things, and then rotates. "You can program it on your PC," says Cooper, who taught his Mobile 5 to separate different-colored M&Ms. "It's easy to construct -- all you need are glue, double-sided tape, and basic hand tools."
Rug Warrior Pro Kit ( $595 ), from AK Peters. Created by researchers at MIT, Rug Warrior resembles a classic, Jetsons-style robot. You can program it entirely from your PC, and it comes loaded with infrared sensors, a microphone, and a navigational system.
Coordinates: Mondo-tronics Robot Store, http://www.robotstore.com