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Will Wright robot builder and creator of the bestselling video games SimCity and The Sims This fascinating story not only chronicles the birth of a new sport, but also the explosive confrontation between its creator and his business partner. The violence of this struggle exceeds anything seen in the robot arena, but somehow a vibrant community manages to crystallize from the ashes.
I decided to write a book about robotic sports -- and the intensely devoted hobbyists and engineers who participate in them -- after watching an amazing championship match at a Battlebots competition on San Francisco's Treasure Island, on Memorial Day, 2001.
I was sitting with 1,500 other spectators in four sets of bleachers that surrounded a transparent 48 by 48-square-foot box. The enclosure was made of a supposedly unbreakable plastic called Lexan. The mechanical athletes were parked inside, waiting.
Son of Whyachi, the rookie, sat in the red square. The 315-pound, remote-controlled robot moved via 16 tiny rectangular feet made of the polymer Delrin, eight on each side, which rotated in an elliptical pattern and shuffled the bot along at three feet per second. Three metal rods extended over the top of the robot and sloped down over the frame, connected to each other by aluminum braces, with steel meat tenderizers at each end. At the start of each match, the apparatus would spin up like a helicopter rotor, whipping currents of air across the floor.
Biohazard, the reigning champ, occupied the blue square on the other side of the arena. The 210-pound heavyweight robot was a marvel of geometric simplicity. Spring-loaded titanium skirts ringed a rectangular frame and extended down to the floor, preventing anything from slipping underneath and gaining leverage. At opportune moments, a stealthy lifting arm would emerge from the base to flip enemies onto their backs or pin them to the wall. It flew across the arena on six wheels at a brisk 15 miles per hour.
Biohazard had speed and dexterity; Son of Whyachi had brute power. Spectators in the stands seemed to know exactly how the match would play out. The champ, they said, would try to reach the rookie and disable it before those destructive helicopter rotors could spin at full speed.
The builders of both mechanical gladiators stood outside the one-inch-thick plastic, nervously shifting their weight from one foot to another, waiting for the match to begin. In their hands, they held radio-controllers, which they would use to send commands to their surrogate athletes over the FM frequency band.
I slid to the edge of my seat along with all the other spectators. Scores of other robot builders were streaming into the hangar from the pits next door, where they had left their toolkits, spare parts, and defeated robots, spread out on row after row of wooden tables.
A tuxedoed ring announcer occupied a lone spotlight at the center of the Battlebox. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this matchup is for the Battlebots heavyweight competition. Introducing the principals: In the blue square, if you want to take his crown, you'll have to pry it from his cold dead lifting arm. And that ain't going to happen. Your defending heavyweight champion...Biohazard!"
The crowd let out an approving howl. I overheard someone say that in seven years on the robotic combat circuit, Biohazard's maker, Carlo Bertocchini, had won 28 matches and lost only three times. The 38-year-old mechanical engineer from Belmont, California, developed plastic injection molds for a Silicon Valley company, but now that robotic combat was a televised sport -- this bout would be broadcast on Comedy Central -- Bertocchini was close to quitting his job to build robots full time.
"In the red square to my right: This robot wanted me to read a letter to his mama. 'If I don't come home with the giant nut, melt me down and give my spare parts to needy robots.' Let's hear it for...Son...of...Whyachi!"
Broad cheering from the crowd masked a scattering of boos. The guy sitting next to me said that Terry Ewert, captain of Team Whyachi, owned and operated a factory in Dorchester, Wisconsin, that made meat-processing equipment. This was his first robot competition, and he had run his bot-building effort through his company, putting more than $130,000 in parts and man-hours into his creations. "That kind of money will ruin a family sport," the guy in the stands said. Ewert and his team were outfitted in red-and-black NASCAR racing uniforms, which stood in stark juxtaposition to the jeans and custom-made robot T-shirts worn by most of the West Coast competitors.
With the combatants introduced, the announcer hustled out of the arena. The Christmas tree, an electronic display borrowed from drag racing, counted down from red to green lights. A buzzer sounded.
Biohazard lurched forward, but Son of Whyachi hardly moved; apparently its walking assembly had taken a beating over the course of five days and six fights. The helicopter rotor, however, worked just fine. By the time Biohazard reached the center of the floor, the rotor was already a deadly, invisible blur. The two robots collided in a shower of sparks. A square panel of titanium armor disappeared from Biohazard's skirt, landing on the other side of the arena. The robots were flung away from each other by the rotational energy of Son of Whyachi's weapon.
Bertocchini moved Biohazard back into position to take another shot. His best hope was to disable the powerful helicopter blades and then push Son of Whyachi around the arena. The robots collided again. Another small square of armor disappeared from Biohazard's protective skirt, but one of the bracing rods on Terry Ewert's bot also came loose and began to flail around like a piece of clothing sticking out the window of a speeding car. Without the brace, Son of Whyachi's balance was thrown off and the great intimidating helicopter weapon slowed down, then stopped spinning altogether. Bertocchini had an opportunity and we all rose to our feet.
The champ pushed the rookie over to the corner of the arena, underneath one of the four metal hammers known as "pulverizers." These were operated by a Battlebots technician named Pete Lambertson, who sat outside the ring and activated the hazards -- the pulverizers, as well as the 16 metal "kill saws" that emerged from the floor -- at opportune moments, and this was an opportune moment. Lambertson brought the hammer down. It pounded Son of Whyachi's disabled weapon, and the crowd erupted into wild carnivorous cheering, like bloodthirsty Romans at the coliseum. The hammer came down again, then a third time, and a fourth time.
I could see Terry Ewert wincing on the far side of the Battlebox. He was trying to move Son of Whyachi outside the perilous zone, but the walker shuffled ineffectually in place, and Bertocchini's Biohazard blocked all avenues of escape. Lambertson brought the hammer down again, and again. Ewert tried to restart the weapon, but without traction, the base of the robot began spinning instead. We were all cheering and pointing. The bleacher seats shook. The hammer kept banging away. Terry Ewert's face was a vision of pain and disappointment: His $75,000 robot was taking a tremendous beating. Carlo Bertocchini looked serenely confident. A few more hits from the pulverizer and Bertocchini would keep his title and his reputation as the most dominant competitor in the history of the robotic combat circuit.
But Son of Whyachi was still moving, albeit barely. And there was still a minute and a half left in the match.
After what happened next, and all the frenzied scrambling by judges, referees, and event organizers to figure out who had actually won, I started researching all different kinds of robot competitions.
Surprisingly, I found them everywhere. High schools around North America participate each year in the annual FIRST competition, in which hundreds of remote-controlled robots perform specific tasks, such as collecting soccer balls and lifting them into baskets. Computer scientists from Japan gather every December in the Kokugikan sumo hall in Tokyo, pitting their homemade pushbots against each other in fierce one-on-one sumo matches inside a 154-centimeter ring.
At the Georgia Institute of Technology's International Aerial Robotics Competition, students' autonomous helibots fly through the air. At the Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest in Philadelphia, machines navigate mock model homes to extinguish a lone candle. In a different city every year, universities from around the world field teams of kickbots in RoboCup, a robotic soccer competition. The ultimate goal of RoboCup, say its founders at the Sony Corporation, is to develop bipedal robots that can defeat the best human teams by the year 2050.
The real competitors in this new sport aren't the robots that roam the field, but the mechanics and computer scientists behind them, who flex their intellects and imaginations instead of their muscles. They're the perfect athletes for an age in which the U.S. Army's drone aircraft fly over foreign soil, robotic rovers explore distant planets, and even cheap toy-store dolls come equipped with hidden computer chips. The robots are among us.
Today, autonomous robot competitions such as robotic sumo and robotic soccer aren't spectator sports. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and computer vision aren't ready for prime time, yet. That's why the most popular and cinematic strains of competition are the more dramatic remote-controlled contests like robotic combat.
At this writing, the concept has been developed into at least a half dozen TV shows including Robot Wars on the BBC and TNN and Comedy Central's Battlebots, which televised the fight between Son of Whyachi and Biohazard. Some of these shows will disappear. New ones are on the way.
Walking around the crowded pits at Battlebots, I started asking about the history of the sport, but the competitors were hesitant to talk. Sensitive issues involving key figures in the sport were still unresolved, they said. I asked some more questions and learned that the originator of robotic combat was an artist named Marc Thorpe, and that he had been exiled from the world of robot competition.
What I didn't know then -- what it would take me months to find out -- was that the contests inside the arena mirrored a harsher conflict behind the scenes. That fight took place between people whose proxies were not robots but lawyers, skilled in the martial arts tactics of the U.S. legal system, who extracted a much greater toll than dislodged metal.
My curiosity about that battle resulted in this book, which tells the incredible story of robotic combat, and of the other competitions that are also graduating into spectator sports.
This isn't a book about technology, though it has great technology in it -- such as the fearsome machines of the Bay Area's Survival Research Labs, which begin the tale. It's not a book about art either, though many of the robot makers, like the special-effects wizard who created the tiptoeing, crablike robot Mechadon, are inarguably artists, of a type we will be seeing more of in the twenty-first century.
Rather, this is a biography of a sport, the byzantine path it navigated from underground phenomenon to mainstream acceptance, and the price paid for that growth.
If football or baseball were invented today, their trajectories might be similar: Someone has an idea for a new game. The inventor raises money and begins holding matches. A community of enthusiasts forms around the game. The sport appears to have good prospects, and the participants sense the possibility of making money. The players, inventors, and the investors battle for control. They file lawsuits, and the courts have to pick through the rubble. Meanwhile, television takes over and the demands of the small screen (more action, more drama, more carnage) pervert the original idea.
Now that I've finished my research, I think this story is a cautionary tale for every inventor or entrepreneur with a new entertainment idea, in an age dominated by television and litigation.
Specifically, two responses to the spectacle propelled robotic combat along its tortuous path. First, almost everyone who saw it, whether under highway overpasses, inside decommissioned military bases, or on television, recognized that it was a great idea, and that it could be really, really big.
Second, everyone who encountered robotic combat interpreted it differently. Some saw it as an art show, some as pure competition, others as "sports entertainment," like professional wrestling. Others concluded it was violent and morally reprehensible, and still others felt it was inherently silly. And no one agreed with anyone else's interpretation.
Perhaps that's why they're still fighting over it.
Copyright © 2003 by Brad Stone
Posted February 24, 2003
This book is for anyone's who's ever had a good idea and wanted to know what it takes to make it a marketable success. Marc Thorpe's story had to be told. Learn from his mistakes how to survive the greatest challenges entrepreneurs face in launching a brilliant plan. The most violent robot imaginable is nothing compared to the players in this story. You'll be shocked to read of the depths some people will go to profit on someone else's hard work and innovation. It's an engrossing story illustrating the classic battle between greed and creativity; proving yet again that greed will always win in the short term and always lose in the long term. Robot enthusiasts will find the back story concerning the big personalities (human and robot) enthralling. As for the rest of us, like me, who never paid robots too much attention, you can't help but be drawn into the drama and human interest of this business battlefield. Excellent book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.