Robot fight club
Without a major combat robotics tournament, where will the bots brawl?
When you get a piece of tool steel spinning at 250 mph, it can do some serious damage. When you attach that metal to a remote-controlled robot, that’s danger on wheels. And if you put that robot in a sealed ring and pit it against other combat robots, that’s pure entertainment.
Last weekend, Sacramento State University’s Competitive Robotics Club held its fall Hornet Robot Combat Tourney—where 1-pound robots fought to the bitter end. The club has been around since 2002, when robot-fighter Graham Ryland came to Susan Holl, a professor of mechanical engineering at Sac State.
“He was just super motivated,” Holl said. “He just said, ’We’ve got to have a robot club.’”
So in 2002, they founded a robot club amid the sport’s biggest craze—and they weren’t the only ones in the market. Two years later, in San Mateo, the largest event in competitive robotics took shape: RoboGames, initially known as the ROBOlympics.
For 15 years, RoboGames was the one-stop competition for all things robotic. The contest attracted enthusiasts the world over, and was one of the few places that 250-pound robots could fight.
But that all changed this year. The organizers announced that the games were canceled and the world of competitive robotics was thrown into uncertainty.
“RoboGames was like the Olympics,” said Tony Osladil, adviser for the Sierra College Robotics Club. “What would baseball do if the World Series went away?”
That’s the question: Without RoboGames, who will keep the fight alive?
A Sacramento tradition
Robot fights took off in popularity in the 2000s, thanks primarily to the TV shows Robot Wars and BattleBots. Robots fight to the dramatic death, trading blows with saws, flamethrowers and those spinning metal bars—called drum spinners—but it’s not only about weapons.
“The television show is just the hook to get kids into math, science and technology,” said BattleBots co-founder Ed Roski. “For better or for worse, it’s interesting.”
Sacramento sent its share of competitors to the shows, including a quarter-ton, bowling-themed robot called Kingpin, crafted by Sacramento resident Kevin Hjelden in the BattleBots’ 2019 season.
“The 250-pound robots you see on TV are big,” Hjelden explained. “When they hit each other, you can’t imagine the amount of force involved in that.”
Hjelden remembers seeing BattleBots after South Park on Comedy Central, and was really starting to get into it when the show was canceled in 2002.
But Hjelden’s passion for robotics had just begun. He bought a robot kit and put it together. He went to his first robot combat tournament that year—held at Sacramento State, which he was attending at the time. The contest was a mixed bag for him.
“I did awful,” Hjelden recalled. “I lost every fight.”
But that didn’t discourage him. He went on to compete in BattleBots, and he also attended nearly every year of RoboGames. There wasn’t enough going on locally, though.
“There wasn’t really anywhere to fight,” Hjelden said. “So we built an arena.”
That arena opened at Rocklin’s annual Mini Maker Faire, held in October at Sierra College. It has welcomed competitors for the last four years—and it’s just one example of the combat robotics community trying to regroup from the loss of RoboGames.
From no-bot to pro-bot
Over its 15-year run, RoboGames built a framework for collaboration between builders and engineers from all over the world.
“A lot of the combat builders knew each other from RoboGames,” Osladil said. “And one of them called me for BattleBots.”
He was recruited for Matt Maxham’s team, famous among BattleBots fans as the creator of robot Stinger: The Killer Bee. The bot was light for its weight class, so the team had about 9 pounds to spare.
“They said, ’Can you build me a small rotating flamethrower, 9 pounds or less?’” Osladil recalls. “I said, “Yes, I can do that.’”
He and former student Jeff Gomez built an 8-pound, flame-throwing robot to tag-team with The Killer Bee. In a 2016 exhibition fight, the much larger Killer Bee zoomed around the BattleBots stadium, engaging opponents directly with its cowcatcher ramp while Osladil’s diminutive red flame-thrower bot stayed out of the fray and shot flames at giants.
Osladil, an electrical engineer by training, only got into robotics after he volunteered to advise Sierra College’s Competitive Robotics Club. He was trying to get the club off the ground and grappling with how to build robots when a surprising resource dropped into his lap.
“I had a student in one of my classes who had some experience with that,” Osladil said. “Ray Billings.”
If you follow BattleBots, your jaw just dropped.
“I needed to learn how to really be competitive, and one of the best robot combat builders in the world showed up in my classroom,” Osladil said.
Billings is the creator of Tombstone, the tombstone-shaped robot that’s consistently seeded No. 1 in competitions and has dominated the show in recent years. He’s often portrayed as the show’s antagonist. “They think they need to have someone as the bad guy,” Billings said.
“My robot and my team fall into that category: We’re clearly the most destructive robot there.”
This “bad guy” has not-so-evil plans: To bring a competition featuring larger robots to the area.
“Bigger than anything else in the area … 30 pounds, ideally,” Billings said. “A 30-pound combat robot, that can be serious.”
It’s called Throwdown Robotics, and it’s in the works. The domain name has been purchased, the nonprofit has been organized—the gladiators are coming.
Tiny robots duke it out
Leaving from his home in Livermore on Saturday morning, David Rush was on his way to Sacramento State, packing just one robot—weighing in at less than 1 pound for its weight class. The robot’s name: Meanie Mouse. The chassis depicts a frowning rodent, aacute; la Disney, but with angry eyebrows and blood spatter.
Rush, 30, has been a robot fight combatant since 2015, fighting solo as Team Widows Peak.
“My first robot was from a kit, ready-to-use,” Rush recalled. “I’m one of those guys who’s got the bug for combat robotics.”
Nowadays, he travels all over the state and the country—about 10 times a year—in search of contests to test his remote controlled bots. Always interested to see the newest tactics from other fighters, Rush found intrigue in fellow Bay Area competitor Brandon Kittredge, who also registered for the Sacramento tournament.
“I have a slight rivalry with Brandon,” Rush said “Especially at Sac State, because the last time I fought him there, he beat me with ease. I underestimated him.”
Meanie Mouse blew through the first round, taking out the Killer Rabbit, flipping it upside down and surgically dismantling one of the bunny’s dual saws. In the second round, the rodent kept up its mean streak and qualified for the grand finals—facing the robot Lobotomy, controlled by none other than Kittredge.
The battle lasted almost two minutes, but in the end, one bot was tossed skyward in a final KO. Rush’s Meanie Mouse was the victor—his best fight of the day, Rush said.
The future of combat robotics on the West Coast is unclear. While lots of folks are stepping up to host competitions, without RoboGames there’s not a space for heavyweight robots to go head-to-head. If someone wants to fill the void, it’ll take some serious work.
“I think someone just needs to want to do it,” Hjelden said. “And someone who is willing to lose some money—someone who is passionate about robots.”