Combat robots undoubtedly satisfy a deep boyish urge to wreck stuff. But a closer look into the sport of combat robotics reveals something more. The escalating war of robots produces some surprising spoils. As you enter a technological future dominated by satellites, wireless gadgets, and hybrid cars, you may have these evil-natured robots to thank.
What gratitude could you feel for these ruthless gladiators – these brutish, soulless beasts who breathe fire, wield axes, and ram each other until one of them lies dismembered? Combat robots undoubtedly satisfy a deep boyish urge to wreck stuff. But a closer look into the sport of combat robotics reveals something more. The escalating war of robots produces some surprising spoils. As you enter a technological future dominated by satellites, wireless gadgets, and hybrid cars, you may have these evil-natured robots to thank. The sport of combat robotics first entered the public consciousness through the BattleBots show on Comedy Central, which aired five tournaments from 2000 to 2002. “As far as the sport goes, some robot builders argue whether not being on TV anymore is good or bad,” says Billy Moon, leader of Team Moon Robotics. “On one hand, the show gave the sport a lot of recognition. No matter where we go, inevitably people have seen one of those shows.” The sport received so much attention that it briefly became a piece of pop-culture currency. The trappings of Battlebots – the glitzy graphics and overexcited announcer commentary – also gave the broadcast a veneer of manufactured hype. During the show’s reign, fighting robots were parodied on The Simpsons and the Tonight Show. In the five years since the last BattleBots aired, much has changed about bot bouts. The events organized under the new national Robotic Fighting League (RFL) are austere and down-to-business. Design and strategy has taken center stage. “I think overall it’s been good to be out of the spotlight,” says Moon. “It’s eliminated the people who just wanted to get on TV. It’s let the sport progress the way it should.” Moon started building robots for himself when he was only ten. Now, at the age of 46, he works at Cisco Systems as a Distinguished Engineer, the highest rank of technical professional. Only a couple of dozen multi-disciplined “Ninja-Class” engineers work for the firm, taking on special projects that require the most out-of-the-box solutions. During his professional career Moon has created more than 200 new patents, at an average rate of one every six weeks. Moon is also a popular guy in the office on “Bring your Kid to Work Day,” when he will bring in many of his team’s remote-controlled creations for a parking lot demonstration. Weekends are spent building and fighting robots with the rest of Team Moon, a small coterie of family members and engineering colleagues. Team Moon began competing in combat robots six years ago, at the height of the Battlebots craze. Its early heavyweight robot, Vladinator, dominated many of the televised tournaments. Now active in the larger and independent RFL as well as the yearly (untelevised) BattleBots contest, Team Moon operates about a half dozen robots competitively, each ranking near the top of their weight class. Most contests are double-elimination tournaments of three-minute bouts, where two robots of the same weight class fight to disable each other. The operator controls include a “tap-out” button for when the operator wishes to surrender the match and save its fighter further damage or humiliation. Most fights end with this forfeit button, where one robot obviously dominates. If the three-minute bell rings, judges award points to the contenders based on aggression, strategy, and damage. Typically, it takes two people per robot to steer the action with radio controls - one to drive the bot around the rink, and the other to fire its weapons. Weapons on super-heavy weight robots (around 340 lbs) are not kidding around anymore. In a three-minute match, the offensive maneuvers - consisting of kinetic thrusts, spinning blades, or bursts of flame - push out up to 200,000 joules of energy, pumping from 2000-Amp 30-volt reserves of electric power. “You might think a good armor would be thick 3130 or 3140 steel,” says Moon. “Most weapons now will cut through that like butter.” Since the sport has left the TV spotlight, more responsive engines and more sinister hardware have emerged. The top competing machines are now developed through advanced engineering software, digitally simulated, and CNC-cut. “What’s nice about robotics is that it's a full system: mechanical, electronic, and artificial intelligence,” Moon says. “You have to know a little bit of everything when you’re building a robot, and that to me is very satisfying.” For robot builders fascinated with performance, strength, power, mechanical motion, and the grating sound of metal-on-metal it is appropriate that the most advanced addition to their workshop is in a sense a robot itself - a robot that uses mechanicals, electronics, and programming. The biggest addition to the Moon workroom has been a CNC mill, which cuts metal pieces automatically from the computerized part models. Moon purchased one of the first “personal CNC” machines on the market. The new mill, put out by Tormach, Inc, is able to precision-cut the thick titanium armor, but is smaller and more affordable than the historically huge factory equipment. The “personal” in the trend of CNC can be likened to the first personal computers, where the technology finally became practical for an individual in cost, size, and performance. And with the advent of easy-to-use CAM (the software which converts CAD files into machine cutting paths), CNC technology is becoming closer in practice to just sending a Word document over to a printer. Of course in this case, the printer is carving out three-dimensional steel parts. “I’m far from being a machinist myself,” admits Moon. “The Tormach is an excellent example on how easy CNC machining is getting. If we can use it, then any one can do it. The technology the way it is now, it’s very affordable compared to taking your parts to a machine shop every time.” In contrast to factory-sized CNC mills that bottom out at around $30,000, the PCNC 1100 costs under $7000. “My older boy* actually took in a week's course over the summer to do the CAM programming using a software package called CAMWorks,” says Moon. “He’s interested enough that he’s actually making a few parts on the Tormach machine, which is an amazing thing to do for a high school kid. My objective for getting him to use tools has surpassed my expectations.” Six years ago, a Team Moon robot began as cardboard model, then a wooden one. The physical prototypes were tested and tweaked manually, before the metal parts were finally fabricated. “It took us about a year to design it and about six months to build it, because we had to do so much stuff by hand.” Now, the shop can push out the most modern machines in half the time, thanks to an automated design process that is in many ways more advanced than that of some commercial manufacturers. Robots are now fully designed in SolidWorks, a 3D solid modeler. For his newest creation, called Eugene, Moon used a mechanical simulation software Cosmos for various mechanical simulations, like stress analysis of the assembly, or repair exercises, which used volumetric data to ensure clearances inside the machine for different sizes of tools. The majority of the robot parts are very complex in construction, having a lot of curves and circles that bend in more than two dimensions. “For our purposes, we would benefit from having a CNC machine where we could CAM these difficult shapes, where the machine would do a lot of the thinking, rather than trying to do it manually. The Tormach was a really good choice for us because it was specifically designed for CNC, whereas a lot of smaller mills are conversions of a manual machine. There’s a lot more you can do from day one with a mill that set up for CNC.” Despite its small size, the one-ton Tormach mill maintains its cutting power – enough to craft the thick titanium armor - due to the rigidity of its base and table, which are made of cast iron. The mill’s 4th axis spindle automatically carves the complicated three-dimensional curves – ones which would be impossible to cut by hand – in a matter of minutes. The high rate of innovation in the sport of bots can be seen firsthand in the evolution of pieces on the mill. Given the ability to make a few iterations, robot parts and assemblies evolve into stronger and more effective devices. In the past, this was impossible. Complex parts needed to be ordered at a local machine shop, which may take a few days or weeks of waiting. Now that Team Moon can cut their own parts in the garage, they can speed up the construction process, while enhancing the design. At-home CNC capabilities gives the team the ability to refine the robot design as it goes along. “Even two years ago, there were some parts we had to send to a machine shop. I made a mistake during design about the size of the sprocket for this standard go-cart wheel,” Moon says. “I’d have this little support piece on the inside of the sprocket ring to give a little extra support. In order to get the piece made at a machine shop, I really have to order 10 of them to make it worthwhile, because of the set-up costs. “So I’d order 10, get them back and the support wasn’t as strong as it could have been,” Moon recalls. “It’s just not cost-effective to go make another one again. I’d just have to live with it, and remember to change it next time we ordered parts. Today, I’d just machine another one. The Tormach mill gives us quick turnaround on rework, which has been invaluable.” Do the rapid innovations seen in robot construction have any uses beyond the arena? Given the robots’ warlike disposition, the first thought that springs to mind might be military or police applications. According to Moon, there has been military interest, particularly in the area of defensive armor. Some in the military have seen the sport’s potential as a training tool for both mechanics and strategic thinking. British Air Force cadets take a course in building robots and fight them on the UK bot circuit, the FRA. The biggest impact of combat robotics may be in the commercial realm. “There are a lot of parts we have designed and we ask manufactures to build for us, which actually may have a lot use for people,” says Moon. “For example, electric motors. We are very demanding on our motors. We have the highest packed, highest quality motors money can buy. They have to be super rugged, deliver constant power, and be very lightweight. Five years ago, that was just an odd request. Today, having a high performance electric motor is a very interesting thing if you’re a manufacturer of hybrid cars. What would it take to build a hybrid car? You’d need a lightweight, high-efficiency electric motor that’s pretty rugged.” Because he is an engineer of Ninja status, Moon is fortunate enough to work with suppliers who give him test parts in exchange for feedback. Team Moon often gets prototypes of early technology that is inaccessible to normal consumers. “There have been a lot of manufacturers that we work with closely,” Moon says. “One of them has taken motors that were first developed by combat robots into the wheelchair business. Another vendor was in satellite communications, and needed motors to move the parts on satellites. Now it has a whole line of motors, based on what they’ve learned from combat robots.” Batteries are also a big factor in hybrid cars. Any electric car designed for practical use has to contend with limitations of battery life, reliable power delivery, and time it takes to recharge at a stop at the gas station - or rather, your future roadside “power plant.” “There are a number of industries very dependent on batteries. Some battery-makers have given us experimental batteries to test out,” Moon says. “The batteries we need for our robots are just unbelievable. We need batteries that we can completely drain in three minutes. I need to cool them down, and then recharge them within 25 minutes before they go out again for another 3-minute drain. We need that level of cycling. Five years ago it was impossible. I have batteries now that can perform like that.” “If you can do that with your battery technology, then you can build power plants for electric cars; you can build laptops and cell phones that can charge in a couple minutes and then last all day. If the demand is great enough, somebody will build it.” Whatever the future is for bot-tested technology, the more intangible, but perhaps greater, impact of the sport may be on future generations. Robots have brought fathers and sons together, teaching the youth not just about competition, but how to be mechanically self-reliant. Rather than the passing on the old skills of traditional tools to the next generation, the advanced science of robot war imparts kids with the relevant high-tech skills for later professional or entrepreneurial success: computer modeling, CAM programming, and CNC machining. Now that these building technologies have come down to a personal level of use and affordability, the future is wide open. Team Moon Robotics is one of the world’s top competitors in robotic fighting, participating in several events each year. In the 2006 Robot Fighting League Championship, the team placed five robots in the top three of their respective events. The Moon family lives in Cary, North Carolina. To learn more about Team Moon Robotics, please visit: www.team-moon.com. * Visit Will Moon Custom Knives to see what Billy's son Will has been creating for the knifemaking industry. We hope to feature Will Moon in his own Tormach Owner Story soon.