New on eBay: 18-foot, flame-fisted 'mech'

An inventor finds his homebrewed exoskeleton isn't quite battle-ready. To fund the next version, he's selling it online. Photos: One tall droid

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
The 18-foot-tall giant in steelworker Carlos Owens' Alaska backyard isn't quite up to smashing Volkswagens--or taking the kind of pounding footsteps that might strike fear into the heart of an enemy.

With a rumbling gasoline engine and creaking hydraulic joints (not to mention flame spouting from its fists), the red steel monster is limited to taking a young child's few tottering steps. That's not quite enough to sell the military on its worth. But it's a start.

Unfortunately for Owens, who has spent almost $25,000 and two years building this homebrewed "mech"--think giant robot, but controlled by a pilot inside--it's also an end, at least for this version. With little room left to improve it, he's shutting down work and selling it on eBay.

Photos: 18-foot robot for sale

That's right, any takers who want a huge, slightly perambulation-challenged mech are in luck, as long as they have $40,000 and a big backyard. He's not happy about selling off the steel giant that he has spent practically every waking hour with for years, but he says it's the only alternative if he wants to start over from scratch.

"The one thing that I dreaded doing was putting it on eBay, because I wanted to keep the prototype," Owens said. "But the options are that I can keep it and not build another one, or sell it and have enough money to start the next one. I guess I have to give up my dream to achieve it."

Owens' project has won admiring headlines and baffled responses from the military over the past six months, in the process epitomizing the dogged determination of the grassroots inventor. He might not quite be a Thomas Edison or Steve Wozniak, but those skeptics-be-damned personalities might find in him a kindred spirit.

Nor, in its own outsized way, is his project wholly foreign to the currents of today's military research.

In the movies, fighting exoskeletons have been used by Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens" and by characters in the final "Matrix" movie. Japanese pop culture aficionados will recognize Owens' creation, down to the horned head, from a long line of robot- or mech-themed animated cartoons.

In real life, there's the $50 million that the U.S. military is pouring into researching ways to augment soldiers' physical capabilities with high-tech exoskeletons.

That idea hasn't always gone well. General Electric tried this in the late 1960s, creating the cumbersome Hardiman prototype, a massive steel frame intended to be strapped onto its users' arms and legs to help them lift up to 1,500 pounds.

The GE project operators never got more than one arm working, however, and the project died in the early 1970s.

The military's current project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is under way with two contractors--at robotics company Sarcos and at the University of California at Berkeley. According to a DARPA spokeswoman, both projects have gotten to the point of having "lower extremity models"--the leg part of the exoskeleton, for instance--functioning without having to be plugged into an external power source.

"I'd like to show you don't need to spend that much money to build something that would protect our soldiers."
--Carlos Owens, steelworker and mech creator
Both contractors are now working on upper-body components. The agency declined to give more details on the progress of the project.

The DARPA spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on Owens' efforts, but said it seemed to be very different from what the military is pursuing.

"Ours is soldier size," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "I don't see that they should be connected in any way."

A 27-year-old former Army heavy equipment mechanic who remains in the service's inactive reserves, Owens has been singularly focused on the mech idea for years.

The son of an Air Force officer who later joined the forces himself, he is convinced that the idea of a pilot-powered robot-like vehicle could prove a valuable replacement for tanks or help soldiers go into dangerous situations such as fires or chemically contaminated areas.

He built his first 35-foot model out of wood when he was 19. Drawing on his experience in the military for the latest one, he used whatever materials he could afford, substituting low-tech controls such as hydraulics for the electronics he imagined.

Weighing in at more than a ton and a half, the finished version isn't everything he imagined. But he said he has learned enough in this process that the next version will be fully functional, a real (potential) fighting machine instead of a prototype.

He's annoyed that the military has dismissed his idea in publications such as "Stars and Stripes."

"I'd like to show you don't need to spend that much money to build something that would protect our soldiers," he said. "I'd rather our country had this thing rather than some other country that thought it up."

All he needs is money to start his next mech. Several foundations have turned him down for grants, and so he has reluctantly turned to eBay. He posted it once before, several weeks ago, and the bidding didn't reach the minimum price he had set. He's hoping this time will do the trick.

With an $8,000 shipping fee alone, it won't be a light purchase for anyone. Owens said he'll put it on a flatbed truck and drive it to a buyer if he has to. He doesn't have a choice, he said.

"It's my only asset, because I put everything in it, to help me fund the next one," he said.