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'Battlebots' champion uses smartphones to help robots see the world

For Road Trip 2015, we chat with Donald Hutson, one of the reigning robot warriors, about cheaper machines and how the ubiquity of mobile devices will help push robots into the mainstream.

Robotics and two-time "Battlebots" super heavyweight champion Donald Hutson with the Snapdragon Rover, a smartphone-powered robot that incorporates facial recognition and cutting-edge 3D mapping technology to give the machine "eyes" to see the world. Qualcomm

SAN DIEGO -- It only takes Donald Hutson a second or two to remember the name of the robot opponent he destroyed over the course of three minutes back in 2002.

"Final Destiny," he interjects with a smile. We're talking about the nearly 250-pound, robotic war machine from the Comedy Central television series "Battlebots" -- the one Donald Hutson's own creation, Diesector, obliterated in one of the most memorable moments in the show's history.

Created as an offshoot of the popular UK television series "Robot Wars," "Battlebots" was an American-style sports parody of sorts that played up the brutal nature of combating robots with lots of buzzsaws and hammers all while wide-shouldered announcers in suits treated the bouts like boxing matches. It was described by Comedy Central executive Debbie Liebling as "sports for the nerdy person." But for Hutson, it was a chance to show off his engineering chops.

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Final Destiny's creator, Rob Warren, designed that robot to compete directly with Hutson's, then already a super heavyweight champion after its successful run two years prior. But Hutson's Diesector, which resembled an off-road vehicle outfitted with what looked like a deadly yellow elephant tusk, had the advantage. Final Destiny was essentially a six-sided hunk of rectangular metal, and Diesector could slide its pointed tusk beneath its opponent to marvelous effect.

Within the first five seconds, Final Destiny was sent flailing in the air as one of its metal skirts flipped up into the machine's very own spinning blade whirring at top-speed. Shortly after, Final Destiny, having dismantled most of itself, lost the match lying upside down on the arena floor.

Hutson fondly remembers those days when he created robots designed to destroy. One of his original robot warriors, Tazbot, had 36 pounds of batteries alone, and creating the machines required complex, expensive equipment. Now, smartphones and advancements in low-power processing, alongside 3D printing technology for making low-cost plastic parts, has changed the game.

"Ten years ago, you'd have an engineer sit on a computer and do drafting and drawing, then send to another guy who would redo it, put it in tool path, do the machining and lay that out," he says. "Now all that can be done on a cell phone by one guy."

Though he returned to ABC's revival of "Battlebots" last month with a new machine called Lock-Jaw, he has also moved on to become an engineer in chipmaker Qualcomm's research division working on -- surprise -- robots. Though now, he wants to make those machines smarter and safer, instead of more deadly. (Qualcomm is also a sponsor of CNET's Road Trip series.)

Donald Hutson's Diesector sends its opponent, Final Destiny, flying thanks to an ingenious engineering feat that forced Final Destiny to dismantle itself. Battlebots

There are several ways he's doing this. By tapping into the kinds of technology more widely available today -- like artificial intelligence, 3D printing and smarter, smaller sensors and cameras -- Hutson is able to chart the trends in the robotics industry and figure out the latest ways people are making robots more mainstream. That means making machines more powerful, cheaper to design and manufacture, and capable of learning -- over time -- how to see and understand the world.

That last bit was impossible a decade ago, when Hutson's robot was tearing into its opponents. Today, smartphones are making it a reality.

"The fact that are handsets are in our pockets every day, they become the right platform to use," Hutson tells me as we sit in Qualcomm's headquarters in the northern outskirts of San Diego, California. "Every year they're going to get better, every year we're going to wish there were more people developing for them."

As smartphones become more advanced, he said, and the software that runs them begins utilizing camera and sensor technology to see and understand the world, so too will robots.

Giving robots a set of eyes

It's easy for robots to seem perpetually far off in the future, stuck in fiction where they're either enslaving the human race or helping Robert Downey Jr. fight off supervillains as Iron Man. But the global industrial robotics market is slated to grow to $44.5 billion by the end of the decade, up from $28.93 billion in 2013, according to a report from Transparency Market Research.

On the consumer side, robots that aid us in the home, classroom are just now beginning to hit the market. Earlier this year, SoftBank began selling its much-anticipated household companion Pepper, a humanoid robot that marks one of the cheapest and most sophisticated automatons ever sold to the public. Even at more than $1,600 with monthly expenses of $200, the 1,000-unit run sold out in less than one minute.

Overall, the robotics industry represents one of the most profound shifts in modern technology, mixing advancements in artificial intelligence and software automation with the kinds of sensors and other computer parts that have been driven down in cost thanks to the proliferation of smartphones.

Roboticist Donald Hutson thinks the harder challenges in the field are helping machines see and understand the world, like the Snapdragon Rover, above, that can recognize faces and map its environment. Nick Statt/CNET

Newer robots are poised to replace jobs, further revolutionize manufacturing and fill our homes, streets, hospitals and military.

Even the definition of a robot is beginning to change.

They're no longer just human-like androids or tall and blocky metal automatons like the toys kids played with in the 1950s. Nowadays, robots can be anything: Apple's Siri voice-activated digital assistant, an unmanned aerial vehicle aka a drone, or a self-driving automobile.

So what of those robots we do think of? Wall-E, Number 5 or Baymax?

Before those types of robots can leave industrial plants and the research divisions of the military or tech giants like Google, there are hard problems to solve. Primarily, Hutson says they need to get smarter and to do so with fewer resources.

He's built one robot, called Snapdragon Rover, that's about the size of a human torso. It has the head of dragon connected to a three wheeled base, while numerous slots along the neck cradle smartphones that can help power various aspects of the machine. Inside the head is a special prototype sensor that helps the robot map its environment, allowing it to track movement and even remember faces.

"Everything keeps pointing back to the same question about perceiving the world and getting more context-based information," Hutson says. "It will trickle down into all kinds of products and technologies that we've barely even started on. Some for humans and some just for robots."

The Snapdragon Cargo can maneuver surfaces with its treads and also use its eight rotors to take flight. Nick Statt/CNET

One of Hutson's other projects is a land-and-air robot that mixes traditional rover technology with the rotor-based design of modern quadcopter drones. Called the Snapdragon Cargo, the machine looks and operates much much like an elaborate RC car, yet with the kinds of treads you'd expect on the Curiosity rover now patrolling Mars. The robot's real trick: At a moment's notice, it can also pick itself up off the ground and go airborne thanks to eight spinning rotors neatly placed between its treads.

Inside Hutson's lab, he demonstrates the Cargo's ability to maneuver a floor space behind layers of black safety netting, where it picks up objects, climbs a ramp and -- when its rotors are fired up -- takes off and hovers in midair. Meanwhile, the device's onboard sensors are helping it create a map of its environment and project what the robot is seeing -- which resembles a kind of heat map, but for inanimate objects -- onto a computer monitor next to us.

All of this, Hutson says, is been accomplished with smartphone technology. Current handsets aren't yet capable of 3D-mapping environments -- though Google, Qualcomm, Intel and other companies are all working on bringing vision and other capabilities to phones and tablets. But as technology moves from those research labs to consumer devices, we can expect it to begin flowing elsewhere, into areas like robotics.

Hutson sees the evolution, popularity and overall growth of the field of robotics as only on the upswing from here on out.

"The question is," he said, "will you be there when the great breakthroughs come through?"