Three, two, one, ACTIVATE. The last four words I heard before becoming a deranged, grease-thirsty reprobate.
I was fortunate enough to fulfil a childhood dream earlier this year, after receiving the go-ahead to visit the set of the new Robot Wars, the BBC's revival of the DIY bot-battling TV show which returns to screens this Sunday, July 24th. I sort of knew what to expect, having spent rather a lot of after-school hours leering over the action as a pre-teenager, but the excitement still got the better of me.
Welcome to the Warehouse
All of the action takes place in a warehouse in Glasgow, a shell that’s utterly enormous and dressed roughly in blue and gold drapes and flags. Sounds of clanking and scraping fill the air before human shapes come into focus -- it’s pretty dark in here -- some engaged in conversation, others hunched over the hulking great silhouettes of their magnificent creations.
The disembodied voices of Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon blare out overhead, the two presenters practicing their lines and entertaining the audience before the battles begin. Early impressions: light-hearted and likeable, but nothing on Craig Charles.
It’s the fourth day of filming when I visit and the arena, darkened and devoid of action, is already surrounded by cheery fans. It’s tough to see what’s on the other side of the bullet-proof plastic panels protecting us, but I don’t have to wait long for the spotlights to turn on.
"In the Pit!"
There they are. Not the robots but the hazards. Dotted around the floor of the arena are the spikes (capable of punching holes through 5-inch-thick steel, we’re told), a flipper (strong enough to toss a robot up to 10 feet in the air), the flame trench and, of course, The Pit. Cue pointing and gleeful chants of ‘In the pit, in the pit” from the crowd.
The first of two wars I get to watch begins with Matilda and Death Metal in the Corner Patrol Zones. Both are significantly heftier than they were in the early Robot Wars days, and boy, do they look it too. Even while sat completely still and viewed from 10-20m away, they’re seriously menacing.
The two competing machines enter the ring, each looking tiny compared to the new House Robots, and with a head-spinning flash of red lights, a “Roboteers stand by” and that immortal countdown, the action begins and the crowd does not hold back one bit.
Well That Was Unexpected
Who cares that these machines are the products of years of development and personal investment? I genuinely just want to see them get torn to shreds.
I’m not going to delve into specifics, but it turns out to be the most entertaining battle I’ve ever watched, either on TV or live. Bar none. I’ll only say that the competing teams appeared to strike an agreement at some point, with unexpected chaos following.
The follow-up, by contrast, is an utter disaster. A non-fight, if you may -- but not for a lack of trying -- which may have actually triggered more cheers than the barnstorming first. You’ll see what I mean on the telly.
Once my adrenaline’s drained away, however, I have a mood-dampening realisation. Vastly entertaining as the day’s action has been, I’m not entirely sure the show’s developed as much as I’d expected it to. Time to have a word with the judges.
I first voice my concerns to Professor Noel Sharkey who, as many of you will know, has been a part of Robot Wars from day one. “In the first Robot Wars, the evolution was just fantastic,” he says. “In the very first series, I was sitting on the arena wall with my feet in the arena while they were fighting. But by series three, we had to hide under our desks, because Hypnodisc would come in and cut a robot to pieces. There was a great evolution there.”
But what about now? What’s fresh about about the 2016 series of Robot Wars? “The technology’s moved on, in the sense that batteries are much, much lighter,” replies Sharkey. “They used to use big lead acid batteries from cars, and now they’re using these LiPos, which are really lightweight.
“The motors are better too. More efficient and smaller, so they can pack more in there. Also, the armour they’re using is this new thing called HARDOX, which is like a hardened steel that’s much lighter than titanium and much tougher, so it’s moved on in that sense.”
Power and Size and..?
He’s absolutely right, but while size and power enhancements are a part of what I expected from the revamped show, I’d been holding out for plenty more besides. I ask Sharkey what else there is, hoping for one answer but expecting the worst.
“Essentially bigger machines and more power, yes,” he concedes. “I think the weapons have changed quite a lot, because you had the spinners such as Hypnodisc before -- I loved Hypnodisc -- but it had its flaws. It consumed too much battery, for a start, so you couldn’t both drive and spin up. What they’ve got now is really big, heavy propellers instead of discs. That’s an innovation.”
Pulsar, which I unfortunately didn’t manage to see in action, is a robot that’s held in particularly high regard by the judges. It features a vertical, 9,000rpm spinning drum, the single fastest spinning weapon Robot Wars has ever seen.
“Tools have got cheaper,” adds Dr Lucy Rogers, of robotics company Makertorium. “And to learn how to use them you can watch YouTube videos, use the Internet. You don’t need to do an apprenticeship to learn an awful lot of good stuff.”
Dissatisfied with the answers, I confess that I dreamed this year’s show would feature an aerial element, what with UAVs being fairly popular with consumers right now. Imagine one hovering just out of reach of Sir Killalot, beating him down with an endless supply of missiles.
Sharkey cuts me down with some Robot Wars rules knowledge. Weapons have to be attached to robots at all times, making missiles illegal. Tasers, on the other hand would be perfectly fine to use.
“I would like to see an aerial Robot Wars,” continues Sharkey (and making my heart beat a little faster). “It’s possible now. I do a lot of protesting about drones -- but in the civil world. When it comes to competitions, I'm very keen to see that. It would just be an exciting dimension if you were driving a robot and a little drone took off.
“What the audience wants [right now] is big heavyweights knocking the hell out of each other. There's no point making something that the audience doesn't want. You've actually got things now like cluster bots, where you've got several robots and if the mother robot gets killed the little robots can then come out to antagonise the others. You could have flying robots doing that too.”
It’s a vision that makes me smile, but also reinforces my frustration. After all, CBBC’s Airmageddon is a show based entirely around drones, which proves the interest in these flying contraptions is there. Robot Wars should have gone a step beyond that by routinely smashing them to pieces.
A Rich Person's Game?
I’m also disappointed to see that every machine involved in the competition appears to have been assembled at great expense. So much for my hopes of a cheap, Raspberry Pi-centric mini-section.
“I don’t know what the cheapest robot here is, but there’s a couple early on I think that... no, I think they’re all expensive,” says Sharkey. “Some of them are really expensive, probably about £8,000, and I don’t think there’s anything here that’s less than £1,000. In the first series, some of the machines must have cost about £15. They were essentially model cars that had a little bit of armour on them.
“But what’s the cost of a machine? You have to think about development costs. Some of these guys never see their partners for months on end, and are just out there slogging away. In the last programs, we actually had some Robot Wars divorces. Really.”
So what does the future hold, according to the judges? Am I expecting too much too soon?
The University of Edinburgh’s Professor Sethu Vijayakumar springs into action here. “The concept of shared autonomy, where from a human perspective you want a lot of the tedious things to be taken over by robotics, but you still want to be in control of things. For example, you could devolve things like falling into the pit or escaping as a natural automatic strategy, whereas you could do a high-level supervision to control the robot’s strategy, and that would stay human. Perhaps we will see in the next evolution. That hasn't happened here.
“This is pure conjecture, but perhaps we might see some new innovations in how the roboteers talk to the robot. In other words, not just joysticking but through something multi-sensory or something almost science fiction-like. But I think that the technology is there now. So we could use tactile, full-body control exoskeletons, as a way of controlling the robots in a much more natural way.”
Think Real Steel, but with slightly less muscular versions of Hugh Jackman in the driver's seat.
“I could imagine them being massive,” adds Sharkey. “People are still rubbing up against the weight restrictions all the time. They'd all like to be much bigger. It's like evolving dinosaurs. They could get bigger and bigger and bigger and more powerful. Will they get more autonomy? Well, I don't know. If you think about it, it's a TV show, and it's the human endeavour of one human against another that people really like. You like to see the failures and the successes and the element of chance as well.
“You don’t know what you’re up against, so you can’t program for every situation.”
Robot Wars returns this Sunday (July 24th) at 8pm on BBC2