abandon all hope ye robots who enter
Building a Better BattleBot
Interview with Dr. Jason Dante Bardis
by Michelle Federico
BattleBots, a Comedy Central series, features contestants who design and build radio-controlled robots to face off against one another in three-minute bouts of pure robot combat. These bots utilize a variety of tactics such as flipping arms, wedges, spinning discs, spikes, and hammers to defeat their opponents, while steering clear of the various hazards and obstacles in the battle arena. We asked Dr. Jason Dante Bardis, an experienced BattleBots competitor, how he got into robot combat and why he keeps coming back for more.
What exactly does a BattleBots competitor do?
Quite a bit, actually. You have to dream up an idea for beating other bots, which usually involves thorough TV and Web research of competitors bots. Then, you have to figure out how to make your dream real and set aside copious amounts of time and money for the project.
Making parts and assembling the bot takes most of your time. You usually see a lot less of your family and friends. In the process of building, you'll inevitably need to go through several redesigns and rethink some parts (something or other is bound not to work out perfectly the first time around).
You should practice driving your robot, even though half of the new competitors dont. Most fights seem to come down to driving skill. Practice will not only improve your technique, but also identify weaknesses in your bot before the competition.
Once at the competition, you will most likely discover that your bot is overweight when weighed on the official scale. A drill or file comes in handy to remove some material, and you'll quickly identify and remove any redundant fasteners or parts, just to make weight. While fighting, you must keep cool in front of the crowd and cameras.
After competing, you start tearing down the bot to get it ready for the next BattleBots competition. The sooner you start rebuilding, the less of a crunch you'll be in when the next event rolls around.
When and how did you first become interested in robotics?
I grew up playing with toys that led to my later love of robotics: LEGO, Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, Hot Wheels, Zoids, slot cars, remote control cars, model kits, video games, and home computers. Later, when I was in school, I was interested in and good at physics and math, which combined perfectly with my childhood interests. Robotics has it all for me: design, mechanics, remote control, some math and physics, and its also an excellent creative and artistic outlet.
I first saw robot combat in Wired magazine in 1993, but I didn't have the resources or the time to enter a competition until 1996. My first fighting robot was awful, but I learned so much and I had so much fun anyway.
What kinds of robots have you created?
Most of my robots are mean; their mission in life is to destroy other bots. Ive built about nine fighting robots since 1996.
My least violent bots were Itchy and Scratchy, designed for the LEGO booth at the 2001 E3 trade show. They were supposed to gather Ping-Pong balls and bring them to one side of the arena. Instead, I designed them to kick the balls into the audience or slam down on them to crush them. These were the least violent because I designed them to beat up on Ping-Pong balls rather than other bots.
How do you decide what kinds of robots to create?
I have two main goals when creating a fighting bot: combat superiority and aesthetic appeal. Its difficult to build a robot that can achieve both. Winning bots tend to be boxy and efficient, and lack character, while aesthetically appealing bots tend to be more fragile and less efficient. For example, I made Towering Inferno completely wacky and different from any other BattleBot, but the tougher part has been getting him to be a good fighter, toohes got a 2-2 record.
Sometimes it just happens by chance. I built one of my bots, Dr. Inferno, out of an old toy robot as a joke, and he actually got third place at BotBash, against much heavier robots. So I thought it would be fun to kick that idea up a notch and make a sequel, but make it a serious contender. Dr. Inferno Jr. was born.
What are you working on now?
Im in the midst of several robot projects right now. Im updating three of my botsDr. Inferno Jr., Towering Inferno, and Hell on Wheelsto make them more robust and competitive. I also just built two LEGO MindStorms bots, The Infernal Brick of Despair and Longneck, for a tug-of-war competition, and a remote-controlled LEGO MindStorms bots for the Robotics Society of America Sumo and Robot Expo.
What advice can you give to young people who are interested in robotics?
Anybody can do this! Dont be intimidated. There are so many kits, books, tutorials, and toys out there that let people get their feet wet with minimal time and money invested. My personal favorite is LEGO Mindstorms, although $200 may seem steep for a toy. But to me, its not just a toyits also a valuable design and engineering tool. I even built a motorized prototype of Towering Inferno out of LEGO before cutting the first piece of metal to build the real bot.
When youre ready to build a BattleBot, remember to start small (cost goes up with size and weight), learn about the designing and building processes, and then ramp up to bigger machines. And, who knows, maybe Ill see you on BattleBots!
Jason Dante Bardis earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California Santa Barbara on Valentine's Day 2002. He has competed in 14 robot competitions with over a dozen bots since 1996. He will be returning to BattleBots season 5.0 in San Francisco in May 2002 with upgraded versions of his current, high-ranked, bots, Dr. Inferno Jr. and Towering Inferno. To learn more about Jason and his bots, visit the web site for his robotics company at www.infernolab.com
BattleBots IQ is a new educational program where students ages 1218 learn about engineering by creating a competitive BattleBot. The curriculum, which incorporates mathematics, physics, and engineering, is typically offered as a one- or two-year course at middle and high schools or at qualified youth organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
As a way of further applying their skills in robotic designing, team building, budgeting, and constructing, teams enter their robots in the BattleBots IQ Tournament.
Visit www.battlebotsiq.com to learn more about BattleBots IQ. To find out how to get your school or youth organization involved in BattleBots IQ, e-mail Nola Garcia, National Education Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org
All content © Jason Dante Bardis and the Infernolab, 1999-2003