Published on March 19th, 2012 | by Joshua Philipp2
Roboticists Engage in Mech Combat to Hone Their Skills (Interview)
The idea of locking custom-made mechs in a combat arena, armed with rockets, airsoft rifles and flamethrowers, all the while controlled by players looking through the cockpits via webcams, didn’t come about through some military project or through a TV studio.
Rather, “It literally started as a semi-tipsy bar conversation 5 years ago after my first day at Robogames, a bunch of people from the robotics community were throwing ideas around, so I pitched this,” said Andrew Alter, roboticist and mech pilot.
“I’d been watching the Combots and humanoid robot kung fu competitions and thought it’d be cool to sort of mix the two and make a new style of competition,” he said.
The crew here are geeks in the truest sense—hackers who live up to the original title of tinkerers uninhibited by what’s already out there, and gamers who want to bring things to the next level.
“Most of the guys involved with this project love robotics in general, and a lot of the inspiration for the core concept was drawn from videogames and sci-fi universes such as MechWarrior/BattleTech, Chrome Hounds, Warhammer 40k, etc. We wanted to bring our passion for robotics and interest in this sci-fi genre to life, and this came in the form of this competition,” Alter said.
The goal, Alter says, is immersion. “We didn’t want another Battlebots or Humanoid Kungfu competition where the competitors are able to view the arena from their own viewpoint. The goal here was to actually emulate piloting a large mech through an urban environment. So a big part of this is limiting the pilots’ view of the arena to on-board video feeds only.”
The team describes the games as a “real-world videogame,” not just because of the theme, but also because of how it’s played. The arena is a miniature city, complete with city streets and buildings. Players limit their field of vision to what’s seen from webcams mounted on the mechs, and they control everything using modified Playstation controllers.
“Not only does this add to the challenge, but it really adds to the immersion,” he said. “The scale buildings and streets that we battle in only aid this effect.”
They take things yet another step further using a custom-built scoring system—small sensors that keep track of each hit. Through this, Alter said, the “mech’s literally have hit-points that get lowered each time they are fired upon successfully by an enemy mech.”
Combat systems have become more complex over the last four years, and the team is now looking to build a new arena that can keep the audience safe from some of the new weaponry. They recently started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for an arena built from lexan and aluminum.
Their current arenas are typically built from PVC and canvas, which Alter said works with the weaker airsoft weapons, “but we’re running into safety concerns as the custom airsoft assemblies that our builders are bringing out are becoming too powerful. Last year we ended up with many holes in the mesh that allows spectators to see—which is a pretty big danger.”
But they’re also making way for new weapons—among them micro-rockets, flamethrowers, and CO2 projectile systems. “Last year we had our first ‘hardcore league’ match that allows for use of these more powerful weapons, but because we lack an armored arena we had to borrow a small Combots arena (8x8x2′) to host the match, which completely breaks the immersion for the pilots and didn’t allow for the use of any scale buildings to provide cover,” Alter said.
“It ended up being more of a technical demonstration of the more powerful weapons, which was fine, but this is an area we’d like to see grow in this competition. And yes, rockets were fired.”
The competitions have grown over the years. They get university teams from all over, and they’ve started drawing competitors from Japan, which has its own version of Mech Warfare.
But even with all the new teams and fancy weapons coming in, the competitions are less about to winning and more about learning. Alter describes it as more of “an engineering challenge.”
“Having this mix of skill levels and demographics is really great to see, as information and ideas tend to flow freely. We’re also solving practical real-world problems like being able to stream video over wifi in high-interference areas. It’s not nearly as easy as one might think,” he said.
They also take a few steps to keep things relaxed. There are no prizes for winners, they have no plan to turn the competitions into anything profitable.
“Really what it boils down to is a labor of love. People are drawn to this competition, and invest a lot of time and money into their projects for it, simply out of a love for engineering and robotics,” Alter said. “It’s a challenge, and it’s a very unique competition that is growing more each year.”