Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ps_roboGamesArt

Oleg Zhevelev/SHUTTERSTOCK

Robot Deathmatch

• May 11, 2012 • 6:00 AM

Oleg Zhevelev/SHUTTERSTOCK

In the minor leagues of the tech world, homemade robots duke it out in the bowels of the San Mateo fairgrounds.

Ring for robotic games

The squared circle for the mechanical warriors resembles a greenhouse plunked in the middle of a warehouse.

They warned about explosions. They warned about the sweltering heat in a warehouse filled with whirring metal, stray live electric wires, and remote-controlled helicopters buzzing overhead. They even warned about the desolate strip mall-lined walk from the convention center to the nearest bar.

Nevertheless, who could pass up a chance to catch the RoboGames, the Olympics of mechanical people? So we drove up from Pacific Standard‘s Santa Barbara home to San Mateo, California last month to watch robots from dozens of countries vie for supremacy in everything from sumo wrestling to soccer.

The main draw was the heavyweight division of the combat event, where 220-pound robots use blades, wedges and lifters attached to their metal-box hulls to crush, disembowel and otherwise disable their opponents. The large square arena is surrounded by a wall of thick Plexiglas. Grandstand bleachers 12 rows deep were filled with fans howling like they were at a mixed martial arts match. In the end, Original Sin’s reinforced yellow wedge bulldozed its way to victory over last year’s silver medalist, Last Rites. The video below gives a taste of the action in the non-behemoth class.

[quicktime]http://www.psmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/PS_roboGames_1.mov[/quicktime]

RoboGames is like the minor leagues of tech. It’s a place where someone like Daniel Carrison, a mechanical draftsman from Brisbane, Australia, can compete and share notes with other robotics nuts from across the globe.

Carrison built his robot, The Huntsman, a 180-pound hulk of black metal with an axe affixed to its top, over 10 months, costing himself about $2,000. “I have to sell it before I go home,” he said after his first fight, his hands shaking, sweat on his forehead. “It would be too expensive to bring back with me.”

We also met Dave from California, an engineer at Boeing for over 30 years and RoboGames participant for most of the 2000s. He misses the days when Comedy Central’s BattleBots show put the scene into the international spotlight. Not that he thinks his own entrant, the middle-weight, sledge-hammer armed Herr Gepoünden, served as much of a draw: “People say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the bathroom while this one fights’,” says Dave.

It wasn’t all flame-throwers and Skil saws. Evan Ackerman, blogger at IEEE Spectrum, gave a lecture making a convincing case for the ways in which robots will continue to improve on human performance in everything from manufacturing to dribbling a basketball. Carol Reiley of Johns Hopkins University spoke on using statistical analysis to objectively evaluate surgeons based on motion and video data from operations that involve robotic instrumentation. (For a less exalted idea of how humans might control robots directly, check out this humanoid vs. robot video.)

[quicktime]http://www.psmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/RoboHumanoids.mov[/quicktime]
Suffice to say, we all know robots are the future. They drive our cars, pick up our garbage and disable our bombs. So before they become our overlords, we might as well share a game of foosball.

Michael Fitzgerald and Matt Skenazy
Michael Fitzgerald and Matt Skenazy are 2012 fellows for Pacific Standard.

More From Michael Fitzgerald and Matt Skenazy

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.