Giant robots in the backyard

An Alaska ironworker is building an 18-foot-tall manned "Mecha" to fight at the local racetrack--and for the military, if they want it. Photos: Mecha evolution

In the back of Carlos Owens' southern Alaska yard, an 18-foot-tall steel robot is taking shape in the dim light of the winter afternoons.

The 26-year-old Owens is an Anchorage-area steelworker by day. In his own time, he's hoping to become the creator of a true "mecha"--not a robot, exactly, but a gigantic exoskeleton that can transform its wearer's motions into eight-foot strides and the devastating sweep of a steel fist.

Sure, it sounds like a cartoon or sci-fi fantasy--but so were moon landings 50 years ago. Owens' mecha project is well on its way to completion, its horned red head and pincher hands towering above its creator under a few inches of snow. He's hoping to finish it in time for a test spin at the local drag racetrack next summer, demolishing a few cars to show off its capabilities.

"This is a concept that's been around for a long time," Owens said in a telephone interview. "But I'm not going to wait for the other guy to come out and make it when I've got the capability to do it myself."

The project is a tinkerer's dream, a homegrown technological mania in the same better-judgment-be-damned spirit as the Homebrew Computer Club that ultimately gave birth to Apple Computer and Silicon Valley's microcomputer industry. In Owens' case, the scale simply happens to be more macro than micro.

He's drawing from an imaginative well that has inspired big corporations and the U.S. military, as well as innumerable video game developers and Hollywood directors over the years. A Japanese manga, or comic book, called "Tetsujin 28-go" was published in the late 1950s featuring the adventures of a giant robot, and was ultimately animated and released in the United States as "Gigantor." Hundreds of Japanese anime cartoons such as "Robotech" or "Mobile Suit Gundam" later featured giant robots, often controlled by human pilots.

"I'm not going to wait for the other guy to come out and make it when I've got the capability to do it myself."
--Carlos Owens, steelworker and mecha creator

It's been a common theme in U.S. science fiction, too, although typically on a more human scale. Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel "Starship Troopers," and the 1997 film made from the book, featured soldiers with powerful exoskeletal armor that dramatically augmented their strength. Sigourney Weaver's character in "Aliens" fights wearing something a little like what Owens is trying to build, and powered armor made a prominent appearance in last year's "Matrix Revolutions."

Efforts to replicate these tools in the real world have been less than successful, however. The U.S. Navy and General Electric collaborated

 

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