Sparks, steel fly as robots battle for crown

Robots weighing anywhere from one pound to 340 pounds battle it out at the ComBots Cup and National Championship. Photos: Robots do battle

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--On one side of the arena looking deceptively innocuous sits "Megabyte," a steel wedged drum weighing several hundred pounds. Across the floor is repeat champion and audience favorite "Biohazard," a sleek, low-to-the-ground rectangular box of shiny metal sporting an orange biohazard icon.

"Go Biohazard!" shouts an excited boy as he takes a picture with his cell phone of a machine so popular that toys and key chains are modeled after it.

The two machines race toward each other in an electrifying charge of kamikaze metal fury--Biohazard zipping around fast, attempting to outmaneuver the dizzyingly spinning Megabyte. Sparks fly as the two pummel into each other and Megabyte's whizzing edges knock chinks out of Biohazard's protective armor.

Photos: Robot wars

Before the three-minute timer is up, Megabyte's wedged edge manages to flip the boxy Biohazard over like a doomed cockroach. The match is over.

In an endearing anthropomorphic nod, Megabyte does a series of fast victory spins. The crowd jumps to its feet and cheers as its owner enters the arena with fists raised and then pounds on the Plexiglas that keeps the audience out of harm's way. It was a solid and well-deserved victory in neo-gladiator, testosterone-fed Robot Combat.

In the two-day ComBots Cup and Robot Fighting League's 2005 National Championships, which opened Saturday at Fort Mason Festival Pavilion on San Francisco Bay, robots weighing anywhere from one pound to 340 pounds battle it out to often smoky and shredded endings. The grand prize is $10,000 and a one-of-a-kind metal Robot's Cup featuring a robot's hand holding a chalice rising out of a bronze crucible in homage to "The Terminator."

"It's the ultimate engineering challenge. Like fighting with your brain," said Donald Hutson of San Diego, who built a fighting robot named "Karcas." "You have the drama of death without anyone getting hurt, and it promotes engineering. There is nothing else like it."

The matches are jarringly loud, enough to require ear plugs, as the hulking machines careen around at high speeds crashing into each other and into the one-quarter-inch-thick steel guard rail. Half-inch-thick bullet-proof polycarbonate Plexiglas surrounds the 36-foot-by-36-foot arena that has a reinforced floor and a light-studded ceiling.

The precautions are necessary as airborne projectiles are common when high-powered machines described as "Pushbots" and "Thwackbots" and a flamethrower named "Alcoholic Stepfather" try to pulverize each other. In one battle, a big chunk of a robot called "Ziggy" flew into the Plexiglas with such a heated impact it nearly melted a hole right through.

On the outside of the Plexiglas are stands full mostly of fathers and sons. Closer to the action are judges at a table and the drivers who guide their robots through direct radio remote control systems, many of which use joy sticks.

"That was intense. That's great," Steve Brown, one of the three rotating judges, said after watching "Sewer Snake" use its shovel-shaped wedge face to pound on "Last Rites." "The guts (of Last Rites) are hanging out."

After the matches, sweepers clean up the debris and the machines are carted off to be worked on before the next match.

Repairing his damaged robot "Pump," Stephen Felk of San Francisco said he was "licking his wounds."

Asked why he builds robots, Felk said humorously: "I'm too stupid to know better. I like being in debt. I finally found something that completely repels women."