Not many people realise that Australia actually has a small but active group of robot warriors. From small events in a local shed to national and international competitions, these backyard boffins do battle.
Building, testing and tweaking a robot to perfection, only to have its electronic guts ripped out in an instant by another bot takes a certain sort of dedication. In fact, based on the population of Australia, and number of active robot builders, it’s safe to say roboteers are one in a million. And for full disclosure, I actually competed way back in the day. Here in Australia, fighting robots is a fun hobby rather than a TV spectacle, but the local talent still manages to put on some captivating matches.
Robots range from hacked together monsters that use salvaged parts to gleaming CAD designed bots laser cut from titanium. Most of the combat is in the featherweight category, where robots tip the scales at a manageable 13.6 KG (in line with international standard weights). The bots can get quite dangerous, so the matches are held in a special arena with walls made from polycarbonate — aka bullet proof glass. Even a reinforced roof is needed as robots are often launched high into the air.
Armament choices vary from flippers to flame throwers but the real crowd pleasers are the kinetic energy weapons. The basic idea is to use an electric motor to spin a heavy bar, flywheel or other bludgeoning tool up to high speed. Once it is going as fast as possible, you drive your robot into your competition and watch the sparks fly.
There is actually enough energy involved to rip another robot apart, though you also subject your own robot to massive stress. Of course this has meant some robot designs have evolved to include shock mounted internals wrapped in thick steel armour. Others have gone for an all or nothing approach, forgoing defense in favour of a more powerful offense in the hope they can take out the other robot in a single hit.
In Australia the last national competition was held in 2014 over a weekend at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland. Robots from around Australia competed, with huge amounts of carnage. The eventual winner was a tough armoured brick of a robot called M3ntalbot which survived even the most powerful spinning weapons.
A match earlier in the event had a showdown between two spinner bots, with quite violent results. Check out the video below – the two robots are Mr Mangle with a vertically spinning drum, and Decimator, rocking a horizontally spinning disk. You can also watch the rest of the battle videos.
So what does it take to build a combat robot in Australia?
We had a chat to one of the most prolific and high tech builders in Australia, Nick Martin. Not only does Nick like to build from exotic materials like titanium, he uses his well-stocked workshop to make some of the most powerful robots around. While he tends to have rotten luck against the less polished but amazingly tough local competition, Nick has competed and picked up trophies at international events. It turns out Australia is a good robot proving ground if you want to fight robots that just refuse to die.
To delve further into the mind of a dedicated robot builder, we put Nick on the spot with some questions about the sport and his robots. You can also check out his extensive and ongoing build thread over at the Robowars forums.
How did you get into combat robotics?
Completely by accident! I bought some surplus drill motors on impulse as they looked “useful”. While looking for something cool to build with my motors, I found the Australian Robowars site and after watching a few videos, I was completely hooked.
What was your first robot?
My first good bot was Jolt, which had an overhead horizontal steel bar for a weapon. It used the most powerful (and expensive!) weapon motor available at the time, which ripped Jolt’s frame apart almost as often as it destroyed other robots.
What is your latest robot?
It’s actually a reboot of Jolt in the heavier lightweight (27Kg) class. The weapon weighs 5.5 Kg, spins at 7,000 rpm and hit opponents with almost 5,000 joules of energy – that’s the equivalent of hitting something with seventy five large electric jack hammers all at once.
You favourite tool in your workshop?
My brain! Without some clever design ideas all the other tools are useless. More practically, the mill is my favourite and most used tool, it’s old and cheap but almost every robot part relies on it.
What do you see as the future of robotwars locally?
At the moment, combat bots in Australia are suffering from a lack of venues and poor exposure. It would be great if the education establishment saw the practical learning potential for all branches of engineering and teamed up with us.
What is your advice for interested roboteers looking to get into the sport?
You don’t need a lot of skills or tools to get started; you will learn from other competitors, overcome challenges and make new friends.
Later in 2015 Nick will be heading overseas to compete in the the Robogames in San Francisco, before hopping on a flight and competing at the UK Robot World Championship in England right after. Robogames is the largest robot event in the world, with over 700 robots and people from all round the world – but only one Aussie. Later in the year Nick plans to take on the local national competition with an entirely new robot.
You can watch Nick and Mr Mangle dominate the UK 2014 Championships below in an epic four way fight.
The last Australian National robotwars event was in October (The RoboWars 2015 Nationals) and once again at the Ipswich Art gallery. Check the website for upcoming events.
Facing off against powerful competition as a new builder with a fresh robot can be daunting, so there are also plans to have a ‘sportsman’s class’ event, where robots are encouraged to try out weapons other than very destructive spinning chunks of metal. For those who want to know more about the building, one dedicated roboteer has even put together a How To YouTube series.
A big thank you to Nick and all the other roboteers who supplied pictures for the article.