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Article in the UCSB Daily Nexus on 11/17/2000, 1st article to appear in on-line version of newspaper

photos: Jason Schock/Daily Nexus
Jason Bardis poses with his BattleBot creation, Dr. Inferno Jr.

Armed Machines Ready to Unleash Fury, Annihilation
by Eric Simons - Staff Writer
2000-11-19

Meet Dr. Inferno Jr.: a 2-foot tall robot with saws for arms, carbon-fiber armor, a "Terminator 2"-style metal skeleton, and most importantly, a nasty penchant for destruction.

His base, powered by four cordless drill motors, is strong enough to allow his builder, mechanical engineering graduate student Jason Bardis, to ride around on him. The reciprocating saw on his right arm is enough to pound another robot into oblivion - or so Bardis hopes.

It's all part of the fun of BattleBots, a robot-fighting competition that pits remote-controlled robots against each other in gladiator-style death matches, which last less than five minutes and usually result in the destruction of one of the contestants.

Bardis will take the 58-pound Dr. Inferno Jr. - dubbed junior since the original Dr. Inferno was ripped to shreds by another robot - to BattleBots 2000 in Las Vegas this weekend, where he will put the robot up against 44 other robots in a quest for glory. The competitions attracted the interest of Comedy Central, which films, edits, provides commentators and then broadcasts the best fights in a 30-minute show airing Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.

Bardis is becoming a veteran of these competitions.

"I first saw, in Wired magazine back in '93, a one-page story on this mad-scientist guy in a white lab coat with a remote-control truck with a gas-powered chain saw, with a low-angle view so it looked really huge," he said. "I saw that and was mesmerized. I thought, 'this is cool, I gotta do this.' "

He built his first robot, Rampage, a 17-pound "total piece of crap," in 1996 for an event called Robot Wars. Rampage "pretty much self-destructed," Bardis said.

In 1998, he built Dr. Inferno out of the motors that drive car windows up and down, with Craftsman cordless drills snapped on. Dr. Inferno placed third at BotBash 1999, but then came BattleBots Long Beach, and Inferno Sr.'s grisly demise at the hands of Ziggo, a robot armed with quarter-inch steel blades.

"I was thinking the kids will like it and if it gets destroyed, it'll get on TV, which it did," Bardis said. "He kind of worked out as well as I'd hoped."

Bardis also built and entered the Missing Link - a metal tube on wheels with a chainsaw on one end and a harpoon on the other. After a third-place finish at BotBash 1999, two television appearances on the UPN sitcom "Grown-Ups" and a third-place finish at BotBash 2000, Bardis brought the Link to BattleBots 2000 in San Francisco last June.

There isn't much left of the Missing Link anymore, because, Bardis said, "he pretty much got fried," once again at the hands of Ziggo. But the fight that resulted in its shredding made it on Comedy Central in August.

Although he lost the fight that aired on TV, he did win the previous match, against a robot called Chia Bot.

"[Chia Bot] was basically a shrub on wheels, and they had a garden hose hanging off the back with a garden pick on the end. The idea was to spin around and hit robots with the pick, and they didn't do so hot," Bardis said. "I used the chainsaw, and ripped some of the shrubbery off, and I think I cut one of the wheels, and it was stuck going in circles."

The Chia Bot, piloted by a 14-year-old girl, was forced to forfeit the match. "I happen to do really well against the 14-year-old kids," Bardis said. "Against the adults, they just beat me."

Bardis also used the San Francisco competition for the inglorious debut of Dr. Inferno Jr.

"He fought, but he lost his first fight. His wheels shredded and he stopped," Bardis said. "He had grippy foam-filled wheels meant for large model airplanes, and the box floor is steel with grip paint on it, which is kind of like what is on boat decks. It's like sandpaper. It just shredded away and the wheels crumbled, and he was left beached."

Buttressed with tougher wheels, Dr. Inferno Jr. will make his case for robot supremacy this weekend in Las Vegas.

"Dr. Inferno Jr. is a lot stronger [than Dr. Inferno Sr.]. I can sit on him and ride around," Bardis said

The drive train on the robot is so tough that, before he completed the top, Bardis entered the base in BotBash 2000, under the name "Overpowered Box." With its tough armor, the box placed second in the 30-pound division.

Bardis built a metal skeleton on top of the box, with weapon arms. But the robot still functions if the top gets cut off - a popular feature with audiences.

"It's all independent, I could lose the top and get it sheared off, and the bottom will still keep going and be a pretty good base," he said. "That would count against me in BattleBots, because damage to your robot counts against you if it comes down to a judge's vote. But the crowd would love it."

Although the reciprocating saw on the arm looks fierce, Bardis said his real strategy would be to shove other robots into the buzz saws, spikes and hammers that pop out of the floor of the classroom-sized arena.

"[The arm weapons are] kind of for show, mostly," he said. "But the base is pretty tough. It's got those wedge flaps on the side. I want to shove the other robots around. And shove them into the traps in the arena."

Dr. Inferno Jr. is Bardis' only competition robot at the moment, but he has plans for a 200-pound monster, called Armed Forces, in the works.

"Being a starving college student, it's taken a while to get the funds together," he said. "As you get bigger, things like the motors and the batteries and the electronics get more expensive exponentially."

A robot can take several hundred hours to complete, and cost as much as $5,000, Bardis said. Dr. Inferno and the Missing Link ran to a total of $3,500, and Dr. Inferno Jr. cost $1,000 - difficult money to raise for a graduate student working on the final year of his Ph.D., he said.

Sponsorships help to ease some of the financial strain. Local companies have donated cash, parts and services to Bardis to help complete his robots. With the addition to royalties garnered from TV appearances, Bardis is in the black.

"So now I've got lots of money, but I don't have enough time because I'm busy with work," he said. "If it's not one thing, it's another."

Bardis got his undergraduate and master's degrees at Cornell University in New York, but claims that a lifetime of winters brought him to UCSB. He has been here for seven years, and is finishing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

After two years in controls, a division of mechanical engineering, he "realized it was just math, and nothing else," so he switched to his current professor, Dr. Keith Kedward, to study his work in aerospace technology.

Bardis and Kedward work on a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, studying surface preparation effects on the durability of bonded composite joints - gluing airplanes together.

"[Bardis is] a very good engineer. He's a very practical guy," Kedward said. "He's showed a creative flair for engineering and the like. He's the sort of person that the industry will want to hire."

The robot production only adds to Bardis' value, Kedward said.

"They think it's very enterprising," he said. "We had a group of visitors from our funding agency, and they're applauding his ability to go outside and do these things."

Bardis received some complimentary tickets to Las Vegas, enabling his roommate of four years, Michael Wrobleski, to tag along and serve as both pit crew and a consultant.

"It's an adventure. He's got so many toys to play with," Wrobleski said. "I've actually learned a little bit about robot-making just by osmosis."

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