Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Robotic Combat
In the late 1990’s, one of the highest rated shows on cable television was a program called Battlebots. The Battlebots program consisted of a televised robotic cockfight between two radio controlled vehicles, generally powered by big electric motors and outfitted with weapons designed to inflict damage on its opponent to the point where it would not longer operate. For three minutes the two robots would bang and smash against each other, each trying to win the match by dominating its opponents. Domination could entail hitting its opponent so hard and so often with metal cutting says and pneumatically powered spikes, that it is reduced into a smoking pile of twisted metal. Or it may mean simply emerging from the match with one less scratch.
Television executives tracked a steady decline in viewership and figured out that the general public, at least, had had enough of the concept. After the fourth season, the ratings were such that the Comedy Central programming executives relegated Battlebots to Saturday night, which in television programming circles is where televisions shows go to die. Then, with little fanfare, the plug was pulled and the show was gone.
But Battlebots was just a television show, and for the technical expressives who built robots, this turned out be a good thing.
As long as Battlebots was on the air, this is where almost all nascent robot builders focused their attention. Perhaps a few dozen at most, out of the hundreds and hundreds of robots entered into the Battlebots tournament actually wound up on television. The great majority of builders and their bots took a long, expensive trip to San Francisco and only got to participate in a single match, or if they were lucky and won their first match, got the honor of fighting again. To actually attain the final rounds, a builder would need to win match after match after match. Only a small fraction of the hundreds of entered robots ever saw the glare of the television cameras.
With odds like that, the fun quotient for the average builder wasn’t high enough to justify a cross country trip twice a year, (the interval at which battlebots tournaments were held). When the show was finally cancelled, the focus shifted from a television show for television audiences to watch, to an activity that was all about material participation. There would be no more national audiences or bleachers filled with celebrities, (if indeed the personalities of Carmen Electra and Gary Coleman counted as celebrities.)
Instead, the robot fighting contests and tournaments became local and regional affairs, gritty and low budget for sure, but given the wide dispersion and higher frequency of events, more people could try their hand at building. The rules for building bots was loosened and the activity flowered and expanded from a small cadre of die hard enthusiasts into a more widely dispersed if not quite so serious community of robot builders.
Want to build a battling robot? Then check this out.