Posted in | Military Robotics

“Battlebots” Competition Provides a Platform to Apply and Test Engineering Theories Practically

Some of the robots built by MIT-affiliated teams selected for the competition in the current season of ABC’s “BattleBots” include a robot that can hurl fire and saws into its rivals with a spinning blade; a robot with two sets of arms to grasp and lift other machines; and a 250-pound bot that can harm and toss competitors using a steel drum that is powered by 100-hp motor.

(Left to right) The SawBlaze team includes: John Mayo ’16; Lucy Du ’14, SM ’16; Jamison Go ’15; graduate student João Luiz Souza Ramos; and Christopher Merian ’16. (Copyright 2016 BattleBots Inc. (Photographer Daniel Longmire))

Four groups of MIT students, alumni and research staff worked to design, build, and analyze battle robots for the “BattleBots” competition, a reboot of the Comedy Central show that pits homemade battle robots against each other in an elimination-style tournament, all through the 2016 spring semester.

Taking part in the competition of “BattleBots” was a chance to not only design and construct their desired war robot, but also a means to apply and test the engineering theories in an exciting, practical manner for the MIT participants. Apart from their academic coursework and extracurricular activities, the competitors spent incalculable hours to construct their robots from the scratch. This provided them with a varied range of engineering experiences.

“One of the more fun things about ‘BattleBots’ and combat robotics in general is you get to do head-to-head engineering with other people and you get to do it in a pretty low-stress environment. It’s okay if it breaks and blows up because that’s what it’s supposed to do,” says Rebecca Li, a rising senior who headed the construction of a robot called The Dentist, which contains a spinning drum that is powered by a 100-hp motor. “I think that’s what makes it a great hobby sport.”

According to Landon Carter, a rising senior majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science who collaborated with Li on The Dentist, apart from the complicated electrical and mechanical design challenges the team encountered, he learnt “a ton of materials science. ‘BattleBots’ at this stage has reached a level of optimization where you really have to care about which materials you are using and in what applications.”

“BattleBots” gave a chance to investigate the engineering challenge of utilizing giant roller coaster motors and a nonrotary propulsion system in order to power a robot, for Dane Kouttron, MIT research engineer who also headed a group named Road Rash.

Dawn Wendell ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’11, senior lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering participated in “BattleBots” as an MIT student in the first Comedy Central show. Wendell said that the high participation by MIT affiliates in “BattleBots” is proof of MIT’s blooming maker culture.

Wendell, the faculty advisor for two teams, explains that competing in “BattleBots” gives a chance for participants to move from concept “all the way through to implementation, [ultimately] having a physical object in front of them that they had the idea for and that they created. This is a really perfect example of MIT’s motto, which is ‘mens et manus,’ or ‘mind and hand.’”

The ability of MIT to field four teams is majorly due to many makerspaces on campus where students can construct, fidget, and research on projects beyond the scope of their educational work. “BattleBots” participants made use of many such makerspaces to build their robots. This includes the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s MakerWorks space, Edgerton Center Area 51 CNC Shop and the MIT Electronics Research Society (MITERS) space. Participants felt blessed to be supported with such resources on campus to sustain their efforts.

“It’s important to have these spaces that are flexible for applications beyond their intended usage,” states Charles Guan ’11. Guan headed the Equals Zero Robotics team, which had designed the robot, Overhaul, containing an upper and lower set of arms such that the robot could seize and raise opponents. “Having an unofficial base of operations for a lot of student activities is a source where we get a lot of MIT’s innovation.”

Apart from their academic coursework and additional activities, most of the students also serve as guides for the MakerWorks and MITERS spaces. Lucy Du ’16 is an associate of LiMITless Robotics, which constructed a robot dubbed SawBlaze that rounds up and cuts the other robots with the spinning saw on its arm and flings green fire at its competitors. Lucy Du observes that having a location that can be accessed easily by students, like MakerWorks, could encourage more students in constructing and creating during their free time.

I think that MakerWorks has really lowered the activation energy for people who really want to make stuff but have a little bit of a hard time getting there.

Du

The common places where many “BattleBots” participants constructed their machines also promoted a spirit of companionship among the teams. Though they were constructing separate robots, the four MIT-affiliated groups often worked together and helped one another with any difficulties they encountered during their constructing and design process.

It was really nice sharing space on the weekends. We would all be staying really late, but we would notice that all the other teams were here late as well.

Du.

Li recalled her experience where during the competition; she would often run over to a different team’s pit for assistance or a spare part, which used to be readily provided always. The symbiotic association of the event “reinforced that this is a community of people. It’s a competition, but it’s also fun at the same time and everyone also wants to see everyone else succeed,” states Li.

In accordance with the Institute’s past history of involvement in “BattleBots”, there is a strong presence of MIT in the current year’s competition. During the first run of the competition on Comedy Central from 2000-2002, MIT fielded teams and students took part in the continuing nontelevised events that happened during the consequent years. A group of MIT students, affiliates, and alumni took part in “BattleBots” when it made a re-entry into television on ABC last year. The team which constituted many of those people competing in the present season was then split into many other teams this year. This ensured that the participants had an opportunity to construct a range of robots and investigate various engineering principles.

Wendell is elated to see the participation of MIT students in “BattleBots” who might have been motivated by the show’s first part to establish their careers in engineering. The ability of the show to motivate the audiences in the field of engineering and robotics is one among her favorite features of the competition.

It’s really fantastic to see that by having “BattleBots” back on TV it has gotten the general public really excited about engineering and robots. And it’s cool to be able to tell my students, who normally see me in a very official role or who see me in the classroom, that I was once in their shoes. I was an undergrad and I was building robots and hoping that they would work, but learning a lot in the experiences where they didn’t work as well as I had hoped. And that is a really acceptable and really awesome way to learn.

Wendell

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