Behind the scenes at a BattleBots tournament looks part science fair, part NASCAR pit stop. Robot bits are strewn across work benches, sparks are flying, and crews are furiously prepping for the next battle, replacing smashed parts with new ones and testing their weapons. In one corner, sits Chomp. Chomp looks like a regular BattleBot on the outside, but inside there's a secret trick: Artificial intelligence.
Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)
Tucked under Chomp's hood, there's a LIDAR camera that maps the opponent's location as the two bots try to wreck each other. There's also a small computer inside of Chomp that can calculate when the right time to strike the most destructive blow might be.
This killer attack is called "Auto-Chomp" and blew audiences away back in 2016, Chomp's debut season on BattleBots. The feature then represented an AI-powered BattleBot on a basic level, as the weapon was automated but didn't necessarily think for itself. Now, Chomp is getting smarter, and BattleBots as we know it could be evolving in a fascinating way.
Just as in so many other areas of robotics, autonomy is the new name of the game in BattleBots. And Chomp is leading the way to the future.
"Autonomy is really hard so basically nothing is against the rules right now," Chomp's builder Zoe Stephenson told Gizmodo. "I think Battlebots would love to have more autonomous robots, and I would love for people who are interested in autonomy to come to BattleBots and help us build.
In some ways, change is just what BattleBots needs. The original robot-fighting show premiered in the US on Comedy Central in 2000, but despite attracting a cult following of fans, got cancelled after five seasons. ABC America brought BattleBots back in 2015 but also cancelled it, this time after just two seasons.
Now, it's up to the Discovery Channel and its sibling channel, Science, to reboot the show and hopefully recruit a new generation of fans for some bot-smashing action. This second revival series premieres in the US today.
The actual tournament for the new season happened over the course of a weekend in an old aeroplane hangar near Long Beach, California. In terms of basic rules, the new show looks a lot like the old one: Two robots face-off in a hazard-filled arena (the BattleBox) for a three-minute battle. If there are no knockouts, a panel of judges picks a winner.
The pool of contestants also features all heavyweight bots - 113kg maximum - and includes the reigning champion, Tombstone, as well as crowd favourites such as Minotaur, Bite Force, Bronco and, of course, Chomp. But behind the scenes, all of these robots are slowly evolving and finding new ways to win.
When Stephenson and her team, the Machine Corps, first brought Chomp into the arena two years ago, the bot turned a lot of heads not only because it sported a LIDAR camera that could measure the distance to specific parts of its opponent, but also because Chomp is so fun to watch. The bot's swinging hammer not only works as a weapon, but also as an appendage that can swing 360-degrees and flip Chomp back onto its wheels when it gets knocked over. You can see both the hammer at work in Chomp's now legendary 2016 battle with Bite Force.
In 2016, the innovation helped Chomp and its builders win the BattleBots Founder's Award "for bringing an exemplary bot that does interesting things and pushes the sport in the direction in which the founders hope BattleBots will grow".
The key moment of the battle happens early on as Chomp brings the hammer down on Bite Force's critical component: A chain. This was by design. Before the match Stephenson and the Machine Corps tuned Chomp's weapon and computer brain to target that part of its opponent, and as you can see, the precision effect is deadly for Bite Force.
This season, Chomp is getting even smarter. Using AprilTags (a type of visual location tag) and a machine vision camera placed above the arena, Stephenson and her team are tracking Chomp's movements during battles. "We want Chomp to be even more autonomous," Stephenson said.
"We have a little bit of it with the LIDAR, but this AprilTag is our next stop in that direction," she explained. "We're going to try and develop some robot tracking algorithms and compare them to the AprilTag as a ground truth to eventually do autonomous robot tracking."
So it isn't hard to see the near future, where robots with autonomous capabilities, such as Chomp, can run circles around the old champs, such as Tombstone. Although it has a very effective and powerful spinning weapon on the front, long-time winner Tombstone is otherwise just a big remote-controlled car. It can zip around the ring and destroy anything in its path, but its reaction time will always be limited by the human behind the controls.
As Stephenson and Chomp are proving, however, using computers to deliver lightning fast hits with impossible precision represents fascinating new future for robot-on-robot warfare.
The far future could be even more fascinating. As robots move beyond simple automation and more into full-fledged artificial intelligence, where they can make decisions and adapt to their surroundings, it isn't hard to imagine that BattleBots 2028 will look much different and much more exciting than BattleBots 2018. That is, if BattleBots is still around.
At the end of the day, the beloved TV series has struggled to stay on the air for more than a couple of years at a time. It isn't the only robot-fighting show in town. The United Kingdom has its own version called Robot Wars, and there's a thriving circuit of hobbyist bot-fighting tournaments around the US every year. There's still something special about the BattleBox, not to mention the unique opportunity for innovators to put homemade robots on primetime television.
Now, it's up to the most innovative of them all - folks such as Chomp, Stephenson and the Machine Corps - to lead the way to the next chapter BattleBots. May it be metal-crunching, sparks-flying awesome.