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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.

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