December 2019 – January 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Ready to rumble

By Jeff Sparrow
Crowds cheer on the destructive prowess of Pot Head and Wanda at the Robowars National Championship

It’s a good time to fight robots in Australia, thanks, in part, to a 110-kilogram metal crocodile.

Everyone competing in the Robowars National Championship at Brisbane State High School’s Performing Arts Centre knows of the exploits of local machine DeathRoll on the American TV show BattleBots. Jules Pitts worked on the croc-themed bot and accompanied it on its US sojourn in 2019, when DeathRoll tore apart some highly fancied international competitors.

Right now, though, Pitt is sitting behind a trestle table and poking at the innards of Wanda, trying to repair the damage wreaked by another robot known, rather disarmingly, as Bob.

“I totally lost,” she says happily.

If you’re familiar with combat robotics, it’s probably because you’ve seen either BattleBots or the British TV show Robot Wars. Both can be traced to competitions staged in the early ’90s by Marc Thorpe, an American toy designer who decided, not unreasonably, that a remote-controlled vacuum cleaner would be more fun if equipped with a weapon.

The first fights took place in 1994 in San Francisco, with a crowd cheering as homemade bots went at each other with saws and hammers and flamethrowers. After a bitter legal wrangle, a British production company emerged with the rights to create Robot Wars for BBC2 from 1998, a show compered initially by Jeremy Clarkson (yes, that Jeremy Clarkson) and then by actor Craig Charles, from the sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf.

In 2000 Comedy Central in the United States put together its own show, BattleBots. In those days – back before geek culture conquered the world – producers didn’t take the robots nearly as seriously as their creators did, with the Comedy Central executives often using the segments to poke fun at the nerds.

“They made it into a TV show dressed up as a sport,” complained Thorpe, “whereas I was producing a sport that could become a TV show.”

A lot has changed since then. The 2019 season of BattleBots was hosted by NFL commentator Chris Rose and former mixed-martial-arts fighter Kenny Florian, with a greater focus on the robots’ capabilities and strategies, and on the combative action in what is a growing international sport. DeathRoll, for instance, competed in a field that included the fearsome Minotaur from Brazil, WanHoo and RailGun Max from China, Rainbow from Russia, Monsoon and Ragnarök from the United Kingdom, as well as an array of American bots.

Nonetheless, if robot fighting constitutes a sport, it’s a sport akin to American-style wrestling, with the competitors valued as much for their cartoonish personas as for their prowess. Hence the robotic crocodile.

DeathRoll now sits menacingly in the high school foyer: a squat khaki-painted lawnmower equipped with red forks, an immensely powerful upward-spinning disc, and a protruding arm clutching a Dundee-style blade, which he uses to right itself. A steady stream of championship attendees pose with him for selfies.

Backstage, where the builders tweak and tune their creations, I meet Andre Cook and his robot, Pot Head. Away from the battleground, Cook is a chemist. Like so many others, he caught the robot-fighting bug from TV.

“I didn’t know that it was on in Australia until I saw an event in Sydney, and then on the train trip home I basically designed my robot.”

To my untrained eye, Pot Head looks like a metal bar on wheels. His head – now adorned with googly eyes and a moustache – seems less like a pot than a frying pan. But he sports a viciously rotating bar, upon which Cook’s strategy rests.

“As long as I don’t get flipped, I should win, because I have a longer drive and a less crazy weapon.”

That’s a reference to Pot Head’s opponent, Very Very Obvious, whom I find on a table further down.

“The idea,” says its designer, Ben Haton, “is all in the name. We put a very, very obvious weapon on it and we spin it up, and we see what happens.”

Because of its size, the green blade affixed on top of the robot’s boxlike body angles down to reach its opponents.

“That brings all sorts of complications, because it gyros in two different directions. So I’m unpredictable when I’m fighting because you never really know which way I’m going to go – and neither do I.”

To me, that doesn’t sound promising. Haton himself has a downbeat assessment of his prospects against the moustachioed Pot Head.

“Not looking good,” he says. “He’s an undercutter and I’ve struggled against them in the past.”

Still, anything can happen in the battle box. In the main theatre, several hundred people sit in the semi-darkness around a 6-metre-square arena enclosed within transparent polycarbonate walls. Lots of families, lots of little kids. They exclaim in delight as each machine gets wheeled in; they join in with the computerised voice instructing the combatants, who stand near the box clutching their controllers.

“Commencing countdown – three, two, one. Activate!”

At its worst, robot combat resembles two Roombas nudging at each other in a pit. At its best, it’s entertainingly brutal, with the collision between high-power weapons sending bots and bot parts showering against the polycarb with a noise like a bomb.

The Pot Head versus Very Very Obvious battle falls somewhere between these extremes. Pot Head starts strongly, box-rushing his opponent before the green blade can spin up. But the power of Haton’s machine soon begins to tell.

“The pot is damaged,” a commentator announces, after Very Very Obvious delivers a cracking blow. “He’s not going to do much cooking with that.”

So it proves. Within a minute of the three-minute bout, Pot Head can no longer move and gets counted out to cheers from the crowd. Machines win by acquiring the most points for damage, aggression and control, or, as in this case, by knockout.

Pitts’ robot Wanda works on a different principle, using a heavy metal ball to bash at its opponent. When I’m admiring it – alongside the vertical spinner Final Cut and the axe-wielding Pickard – I notice a sticker of the feminist raised fist logo on Wanda’s flank.

Pitts grimaces when I observe that robot fighting is a noticeably male-dominated activity, and tells me that questions about the robots she’s built will often be directed to her male partner, Miles. But the local scene is changing, she says, as it has in the US. Fans who followed DeathRoll’s American exploits saw the croc eventually lose to Witch Doctor, a bot built by Andrea Suarez.

“We definitely need more women willing to get out there to build and to drive,” Pitts says.

DeathRoll’s designer, Steven Martin, works as a research engineer in the robotics lab at the Queensland University of Technology. Since the early 2000s, he’s helped grow the sport in the state, to the point where Robowars now features more than 30 competitors, with some 2000 people attending the championships over two days of fights. For him, the appeal is all about problem solving.

“When you get to this level of competition, and the forces that we see inside these machines – you can’t really look it up on the internet,” Martin says. “No one else has done this before. You have to work it out. There’s no answer to the problem – it’s up to you to solve it.”

I think about that, while watching the formidable Abomination destroy allcomers on the way to winning the title.

There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about robot combat – not least because, as Martin says, the competing machines aren’t truly robots. Yes, they employ clever engineering to various degrees, but they’re remote-controlled rather than autonomous, and assembled from the most prosaic of materials by everyday enthusiasts. Gadgets constructed in garages from saucepans evoke a past of backyard tinkerers, not the high-tech of Predator drones, AI and sex-droids.

DeathRoll might be a mechanical reptile but, in a digital world, his physicality makes him reassuringly human-like. He occupies the same meat-space that we do; he acts according to familiar principles.

When the real robot wars start, I like to think he’ll be on our side.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre.

@Jeff_Sparrow

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