The BotGames: Made for TV?
by Andy Patrizio
LONG BEACH, California -- Forget X-Games, pro wrestling, and the lamentable
The next great spectator sport of the next millennium may very well be
rock-'em, sock-'em robots.
At least that's the hope of some of the fans and participants -- and
representatives from Mattel and Hasbro -- attending BattleBots inside a
tall blue pyramid on the campus of California State University at Long
Beach last weekend.
BattleBots is the first of what organizers hope will be a series of such
competitions involving 70 robots from as far away as Britain and Israel.
The crowd, as many as 1,000 each day of the two-day competition, was a mix
of T-shirt clad techno-types with dot-com addresses and families with
In many respects, BattleBots looked like a made-for-TV event. Battles were
held in a cage of clear, shatter-proof glass designed to keep fragments
from hitting the spectators, while ringside assistants called CrewBots in
military fatigues mugged to the crowd.
"I'd like to see it grow, but I want to see it as a legitimate competition,
not as something campy," said Frank Jenkins, a robotics consultant from
Palo Alto, California, who served on the safety committee for the show.
It's already got a core audience.
"There's a lot of kids here. I honestly wasn't expecting that," said Edward
Jacobs, of Santa Monica.
"I like to watch the battles and see the different robots, and hopefully I
can build one in the future to compete," said 12-year-old Ronnie St. Jean
from nearby Coto de Casa.
There were three categories of robots: KiloBots, weighing 25 to 55 pounds,
MeegaBots, weighing 55 to 109 pounds, and GigaBots, weighing 110 to 200
pounds. Most were small, low-to-the-ground designs that didn't have any
weapons, relying instead on the battering-ram approach.
The main rules: no stun guns, cattle prods, RF jamming, foams, adhesive
weapons, and no nets and snares. No explosives or flammable solids allowed.
No lasers over five milliwatts. One bot, Killerhurtz, from Oxford, England,
had an axe mounted on the roof. Fortunately for its opponents, it wasn't
The bots were as varied as the designers. Some bots were creative, like the
saucer-shaped Mouser Catbot 2001, a pink bot with a cat's face. It faced
Executioner, a squared-off creation with a working chainsaw that actually
sliced into Mouser twice, knocking it out of competition and drawing huge
applause in the process.
Others were not so inventive. Rhino was nothing more than a square, flat
box with a spike that shot out of the front.
Competition for the US$25,000 was keen. Every bot in the contest could be
found in a machine area that reeked of solder, rubber, and burnt metal.
Sparks flew and drills screamed as the competitors worked on last-minute
fixes and modifications, or attempted to revive a wounded robot.
Who would take part in something like this? More than just your average RC
modeler, that's for sure. "It's a mechanical engineering contest, really,"
For the private competitor, a robot can cost a minimum of $500, but if they
want to be competitive, it will cost as much as $10,000. Many competitors
are from special effects companies, like San Francisco's Industrial Light
and Magic and Disney's Imagineering. "They do this professionally and like
mechanical things," said Jenkins.
"Models are often used in the special effects world anyway, so this is
There are also families in this show, too. The central California Washburns
entered Scorpion, a menacing creature almost three feet tall with a long
Family patriarch Ray is a machinist from Modesto who works on farm
equipment when he's not refining Scorpion with sons Shane, an industrial
designer, and John, a paramedic. The nasty pincers in the front of Scorpion
were inspired by the Jaws of Life, which John uses in his work.
Two nephews also help out. "We go in different directions during the rest
of the year and don't get together as often as possible, so this is a
chance for a family effort," Ray said.
All told, they've invested about $2,000 in Scorpion.
The winner, however, was the otherwise nondescript BioHazard, a short,
squat block of titanium that in the end proved to be invincible.
BioHazard stands less than six inches tall and is trapezoid shaped. But
it's also made of titanium 3/16th of an inch thick and weighs 191 pounds,
more than its owner, Carlo Bertochinni, a mechanical engineer from Menlo
Park, California. Bertochinni runs robot-aficionado Web site RobotBooks.com.
BioHazard has a hydraulic arm used to pin or flip competitors. In 1996 and
1997 at another robot competition called "Robot Wars," BioHazard won the
It also won awards for Best Design and Best Engineering in 1996 and a melee
contest in 1997, where all of the remaining functioning robots at the end
of the show got into the arena for a final battle royale. "I don't think
I've ever seen him bring a tool box," said Josh Pines, a member of the show
safety committee. "He just plugs it into a battery and charges it up."
For this show Bertochinni did bring a tool box, but it sat unused as
BioHazard charged up in between matches. Bertochinni knows his bot is a
target. "They'll keep getting wiser," he said. "If they don't get me this
time, they will the next time."
As it turned out, Bertochinni had nothing to worry about. BioHazard's low
profile and sloped form allowed it to slip right under the wheels of
competitors, and the hydraulic arm flipped them right over. While one
faceoff after another ended in draws elsewhere, BioHazard won every battle
"There's a $25,000 purse, but even if I win, it still won't pay for the
robot," Bertochinni said, noting BioHazard's titanium structure. "On the
other hand, who knows what it could turn into in the future?"
University of Florida