A song of sparks and fire: RoboWars takes engineers to battle

Slicing blades, repurposed power drills and crashes aplenty -- engineers and electronics hobbyists are stepping out of their sheds with machines designed to fight, and the crowds are loving it.

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To battle bots go at it in the RoboWars arena. RoboWars

It's a special breed of engineer that wants to destroy their creation, but one event is bringing those diabolical destruction-lovers out of the woodwork to pit machine against machine in a kind of robot Thunderdome.

Taking place as part of this year's Vivid Sydney festival -- an annual festival of arts, culture and large-scale light installations that illuminate the Australian city -- RoboWars will bring a demolition derby to Australia's biggest harbour city. The event will set up on the Sydney Harbour waterfront with a battle arena reminiscent of "Mad Max: Fury Road," as amateur battle-bot builders unleash their machines on each other to crush opponents and be the last hunk of metal standing.

Based on the '90s British TV show "Robot Wars," Sydney's event has a few simple rules: build your own robot, weighing in at under 13.6 kilograms (30 pounds), which is capable of crushing, flipping or slicing another robot to destroy it. There are no tasers and no EMPs (electromagnetic pulses, designed to knock out the opponent's electronics), but otherwise, designers pretty much have free rein.

According RoboWars organiser Steven Martin, robot designers take advantage of that free rein and get pretty creative with their designs, modifying existing electronics and gadgets to "survive in conditions where they're really not meant to go."

"It's all based around what you see in your RC [remote-controlled] planes, quad-copters and RC cars, but they're used in a very different manner," said Martin. "People [build robots] by modifying motors, putting bigger bearings in them to make them stronger and so they don't fall apart.

"Some of the typical things you'll find in there are power tools and cordless drills, four-wheel-drive car winches, and the motors and propellers you see on RC planes end up powering massive spinning blades which are used to cut other robots in half."

When it comes to the best designs and shapes, Martin said the robots take three basic forms based on a 'rock, paper, scissors' hierarchy.

A 'rock' robot is built like a battle tank with strong armour designed to bludgeon other bots and absorb blows, 'paper' robots are designed to flip and crush their opposition, while 'scissors' robots feature spinning blades designed to cut through the enemy, making them the crowd favourite.

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Two 'scissors'-style robots, complete with spinning blades. RoboWars.

"They tend to be a bit more spectacular and the sounds you get off them are awe-inspiring," said Martin. "You don't see something so small being able to do so much damage."

But while there's plenty of cool kit inside the machines and plenty of slicing and dicing inside the arena, Martin says a win at RoboWars comes down to a good driver behind the remote and a reliable design.

"Reliability -- that's the biggest thing. At the end of the day, you really want to be the last one running. You can make a fantastic design, but if it only lasts 30 seconds it's no good."

That's not to say that a short battle is necessary boring. The pros might be more interested in the electronics and engineering, but Martin says the crowds always love a good crash.

"You watch all the builders who've done it for many years, and when a robot hits the side of arena there's a massive sound and they just all stand there. But then you look at the crowd and they're all jumping back or running forward to grab their children and pull them back. It's still funny to watch," he said.

Martin has his share of battle stories to tell too. While plenty of the robot failures in the early days came down simple radio failures, resulting a long wait for the builder on the side of the arena, robot deaths can also be far more spectacular.

"I went over to San Francisco with one robot and it caught fire. It caught fire twice."

But for someone who loves getting out into the shed to tinker and weld together a robot for battle, Martin says RoboWars is the "ultimate" test for designers and engineers.

"I find it more fun than what people would call 'making real robots'," he said. "It's an excellent mechanical engineering challenge."

RoboWars will run outside the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay as part of Vivid Sydney on Saturday May 30. For details and tickets head to the Vivid website.
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