Battling Bots Take Over The City

equals zero roboticsEquals Zero Robotics founder Charles Guan and battling bot Overhaul in their workspace at Artisan's Asylum, which is a home for many of the area's combat roboticists. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

Throughout Somerville and Cambridge, momentum has been gathering for a new, rough—and nerdy—sport: combat robotics.

In an effort to increase awareness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, universities and passionate hobbyists are joining forces to try and change the stigma that robotics isn’t accessible to all. From local tiny robot competitions to heavyweight robot battles that air on national television, teams around the region are helping build up a very different kind of sports community and fanbase.

“It’s something that kids can touch, that they can handle—it’s not too likely they’ll actually get themselves hurt,” explains Jamison Go of MIT’s LiMITless Robotics Club. “What really we want to do is engage these new audiences to play around with robotics … and it’s great when you can get kids actually involved in STEM.”

When you think of combat robotics—if you’re familiar with combat robotics at all—it’s likely television hits like “Robot Wars” and “Battlebots” that come to mind. And in fact, there were several Somerville- and Cambridge-based teams competing on this past season of ABC’s “Battlebots,” including LiMITless Robotics, Danger 4, Equals Zero Robotics and Team Brutus.

While “Battlebots” covers the heavyweight class of 250-pounds robots, that’s not a common size for the sport as a whole. Combat robotics has upwards of ten weight classes, and most competitions tend to support fairy weight (150-gram), antweight (one-pound), beetleweight (three-pound) and featherweight (fifteen-pound) robots.

artisan's asylum

“Somerville is really cool for robotics because it does little robots stuff, [up] to thirty pounds, very frequently … lots of people are really adamant and passionate about it are here,” Go explains. “[Smaller robots] use more accessible technologies—it’s more manageable for people to host events … the boundaries to enter are so much lower. It’s really a nice way to engage new audiences.”

Every year, as interest in the sport is growing, the giant robots themselves are getting even bigger. The latest giant robot challenge will pit Japan’s Kuratas against the American MegaBot, and these human-operated machines weigh up to 12,000 pounds and stand 15 feet tall. (The Hayward, CA-based MegaBots, Inc. has a few Artisan’s Asylum alums on its team, including founder Gui Cavalcanti and operations manager Robert Masek.)

But these headline-grabbing, projectile hurling hunks of metal—MegaBot can throw a three-pound object more than 130 miles per hour—aren’t the be-all-end-all of bots. Combat robotics has a very different take on robotic competition than the popular problem-solving organization FIRST Robotics, which gives middle school and high school students the opportunity to learn about electromechanical assemblies and basic machine programming. Each year, FIRST Robotics presents student teams with a challenge to navigate, such as gathering and shooting playground balls or climbing stairs.

The FIRST challenge changes from year to year, and the annual cost to register and get the standard kit of parts is in the thousands of dollars. Competitors work with a restricted parts list and design objectives and have just six weeks solve the year’s problems and build their bot. This sparks creative problem solving but means that the innovation can be limited.

combat robotics

MIT Mechanical Engineering grad Charles Guan, who founded Equals Zero Robotics in 2012 and appeared on “Battlebots” earlier this year, explains that combat robotics is unlike FIRST and other organized robot competitions. The rulebooks aren’t nearly as expansive, and competing robots don’t usually have to conform to a specific shape or geometric limit. “They really offer you a lot of creativity,” Guan says. “And that’s what makes it accessible.”

“The goal is really easy to understand,” he continues. “There’s a lot of other competitions with intricate goals, or it’s critical thinking in a different way. This is, like, optimization for a very specific, easily understandable goal.”

In combat robotics, the team size tends to be more limited, but the parts list is unknown and the electronics and controls are relatively open-ended. As a result, teammates get to adapt on demand, try new things and learn from their failures. They can take their time to develop a more spontaneous or eccentric idea.

That, to Guan, is one of the biggest benefits of combat robotics.

“The thing that I’ve encountered the most is that people talk themselves out of being able to do STEM activities, including building combat robots,” says Guan, who’s seen this firsthand in his three-and-a-half years as a shop manager at MIT. “[It] exposed me to every possible cross section of people—who want to make, who think they can make, who think they can’t do it, you know, who want to do it but their parents told them they can’t, things like that.”
Still, whether it’s problem solving or projectile hurling, it’s learning and exploring the world through science that’s key.

“This is your knowledge,” Go emphasizes. “You learn it all. It’s not an experience you get in a larger organization.”

Want to check out these battling bots in person? Check out the local combat robotics competition MASSdestruction, which is held at Artisan’s Asylum.

This story originally appeared in the November/December print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.