This Sunday Robot Wars returns to our screens for the start of the third new series since the show was reborn last year. Roboteers from around the country will not just be tested by each other - but also by the house robots: Matilda, Dead Metal, Shunt and the fearsome Sir Killalot.
What you might not have realised though is that the house robots aren’t actually the same machines you remember watching while you ate your dinner in the late 90s. When the show was picked up again after 12 years in the wilderness, the decision was made to rebuild them from scratch.
James Cooper is the founder of a company called Robochallenge and was the man tasked with making the house robots formidable for a whole new generation of fighters.
“The house robots have to come back how the fans would have imagined them”, he explains. “Obviously Killalot wouldn’t be the same Killalot he was 10-12 years ago. He'd be beefed up! He'd be more battle hardened! We don’t want the fans to think he's been in storage and now he's come back out.”
“We want to look at the characters of each machine and say if they weren't on Robot Wars they would have been battling somewhere else - they wouldn't have been at home with their slippers on. And if that’s happened then what would they be like if they had 10 years of battle-hardened experience in them?”
The house robots in the post-2016 generation don’t share any parts with their classic counterparts - though obviously they have been designed to keep the iconic look of the originals. The reason for going for something all new? Because of leaps in technology, they’d get torn apart.
“We had a good look at them and though they were very good back in the day [...] they were starting to get beaten up quite often... we knew that nowadays they'd get torn apart by the likes of Aftershock and Apollo, so they had to be a completely huge step-up.”
“All of them are at least 50% heavier, some 100% heavier. The weapons are so much more powerful than before and the drive systems are much more powerful, so they wouldn't get pushed around so they can stand up to any of their competitors.”
The house robots also have one advantage that competitors don’t have: They don’t have to worry about weight limits, meaning that the new house robots could be covered in plate steel, in order to make them tough enough to withstand even the most deadly of spinners.
The Arms Race
Since Robot Wars first began, roboteers have always incorporated new technologies to supercharge their creations, and thanks to their innovation and leaps forward in technology, the robots of today are much more powerful than the Roadblock and Chaos 2 of old.
“It’s just the incredible power-to-work ratio of the robots now - you really can't get your head around it”, says James. “If you watch the latest series and then you go and watch the original series, only then do you really get the idea that these are really on a different level.”
He says that today's spinners are 6 or 7 times more powerful than the biggest hitters from back in the day. “If Hypnodisc entered now it would just be a walk in the park for most opponents because they’re just that much more evolved from there”, he says.
Hypnodisc back in the day.
While roboteering remains a hobby for most, the methods and technique used when designing and building a robot have become increasingly standardised - with specific off-the-shelf motors and electronics becoming the go-to gear for any new machine. Many roboteers now first design their robots using CAD software, so that when actual construction begins it is more like following instructions than experimentation.
But there is still room for customisation, depending on which attributes roboteers want to use most to their advantage. “Is the emphasis on having lots of power on your drive motors? Then that shapes other things,” says James. “If you've got lots of power there's no point in having tiddly little wheels on there - you need the wheels to give you the grip on to the floor, so lots of different elements shape the way your robot comes along.”
James says that most roboteers tend to focus on the weapon first and foremost - as this is obviously the most exciting part. He cites the iconic Razer as what piqued his interest.”I was always mesmerised by the pure brute force it has. It was able to crush opponents and put holes in them by brute force rather than by getting something up to speed,” he explains. Eventually though, new teams learn that the behind-the-scenes stuff is what is really important.
“Its great to see their creativity,” he says of new roboteers, “but it does take them a competition or two for them to actually go ‘wow the power in these things is actually far greater than we imagined and we’re going to have to strengthen things up!’”
The generational improvements though aren’t just in terms of raw power - roboteers in 2017 are also starting to use some clever analytics tools to help them hone their robots’ fighting abilities. For example, series 9 finalist Concussion was capable of sending real time telemetry data from the robot to the team’s tablet, so they could monitor important data like the temperature of the drive motors and weapons motors in real time.
The Rules Of The Game
Technological change isn’t the only thing that changes Robot Wars: In order to keep Robot Wars exciting for viewers, the producers have changed the rules this series to make it easier to compete with the increasingly dominant spinner robots.
Long time viewers of the series will remember that after a scoop-shaped bot named Roadblock won the first series back in 1998, the form became dominant as other teams realised that it was the key to success. This dominance was ended with the rise of the spinners that started with Hypnodisc. Since, spinners have performed incredibly well in competition, and last series four out of the five robots that made it to the final through the regular tournament route used this same style of weapon. (A sixth robot was added to the final roster as a ‘wildcard’). The eventual winner - a spinner called Carbide - became the first robot in the show’s history to have defeated all of the other finalists at some point during their championship year. In other words: This spinner was not to be messed with, and it shows just how powerful these homemade creations - have become.
So what to do? This year the rules on “entanglement” devices are being loosened (no pun intended). This means that for the first time in , robots will be able to attempt to immobilise the spinners by getting them caught-up. What this means for roboteers is that this completely transforms the strategic landscape. Just as self-righting-mechanisms followed the rise of the flippers, new tools will have to be developed to deal with entanglement mechanisms, and new robots might have to once again be very different to what existed before. And James thinks this could unleash a new wave of innovation in Robot Wars design:
“If a different robot could do something incredibly different... say for argument's sake... there are no rules that stop your robot driving along the walls. If you had magnets that sucked your robot to the walls and you could just drive up the wall and you could just drive around the arena that way... who would get you? That’s one kind of inventive way of coming up with a solution for the problem.”
What’s clear then is that it’s a good thing that James and his team rebuilt the house robots from the ground up. At the pace of of which things are changing, if the likes of Carbide and Apollo had gone up against 1999 Sir Killalot, it perhaps wouldn’t have been a Robot War, but more of a Robot Murder.
Thanks to James Cooper from Robochallenge for speaking to me for this article.