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Rise of the giant fighting-robots

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Discover the next big thing in sports: giant mechanical monsters that fight to the death

Since the birth of science fiction, cinema has been pitting giant robots against each other in colossal fights to the death. The closest we ever got in real life was UK television show Robot Wars (and its US counterpart Battlebots), where radio-controlled machines went to battle in an area rigged with flame pits, angle grinders and other robot death-traps. Now, we’re set to see towering automatons go head-to-head, but these creations won’t be judged on damage, control, style and aggression. The winner will be the one left standing.

American startup MegaBots Inc has created their very own piloted, humanoid robot, the MegaBot Mark II. Standing at an impressive 4.6 metres (15 feet) and weighing 5.4 tons, it employs cutting-edge robotics to deliver metal-splitting blows and fire weaponry as the pilots command.

megabot
The MegaBot Mark II. 4.6 metres of the hardest robot-hardware in America

 

The Mark II can launch 1.4-kilogram (three-pound) paint-filled cannonballs at a gut-punching 160 kilometres (100 miles) per hour, while its other arm sports a specially designed gun that launches paint rockets. The Megabot’s creators explained, “We’re Americans, so we’ve added really big guns.” As the juggernauts take chunks out of each other, two brave pilots will be in the cockpit, controlling the Mark II’s every move. The driver’s view is almost fully obstructed by the robot’s gunner, so an intricate camera system has been fitted to relay live video and help the driver see where they are going.

The Mark II can launch 1.4-kilogram (three-pound) paint-filled cannonballs at a gut-punching 160 kilometres (100 miles) per hour while its other arm sports a specially designed gun that launches paint rockets.

From the beginning of their project, the MegaBots team have had only one thing in mind: epic sports entertainment. Although the Mark II was a first for the US, it was not the first piloted humanoid to be created – a suitable opponent for the MegaBot already existed. Back in the summer of 2012, collaborators from Suidobashi Heavy Industry in Japan unveiled Kuratas, a four-metre (13-foot), single-pilot super-robot.

Despite being older than the Mark II, it’s much more impressively equipped, with a superb heads-up display inside the cockpit and more advanced weaponry. One of its signature – if slightly sinister – features is the firing system for its 6,000 round per minute BB Gatling gun. Once the target is locked, the pilot can fire simply by smiling. Trigger-happy has a whole new meaning once you’ve seen Kuratas in action.

kuratas
The Kuratas robot is technically superior to the Megabot and available to buy on Amazon Japan right now

 

A particularly clever feature of Kuratas is that you don’t need to be in the cockpit to operate it. Thanks to the clever V-Sido operating system, you can control the robot with any internet-enabled phone, which the designers call the ‘Master Slave system’. At the moment this technology only works to control the robot’s movement, but could be capable of firing its weapons in the future. Incredibly, anyone can buy a fully-fledged version of Kuratas right now. It’s probably the coolest thing for sale on Amazon Japan, but a fully customisable version will set you back over £650,000 ($990,000). Although the majority of us don’t have that kind of cash to splash on humanoid robots, it does go to show that they have arrived, and they’re here to stay.

Thanks to the clever V-Sido operating system, you can control the robot with any internet-enabled phone, which the designers call the ‘Master Slave system’.

When inventor Kogoro Kuratas received the challenge from the American team, he was quick to accept. Giant robots are a very real part of Japanese culture, and the team are not about to let the Americans defeat them. The duel will take place in June 2016, in a neutral location that’s yet to be decided. The two challenge videos have received over ten million YouTube views between them, so there is definitely enough interest to make this battle truly epic. The sport of the future is here, and it’s straight out of science fiction.

Coming soon: Mark II upgrades

The designers of the Mark II recognise that they are a number of megabot-sized steps behind Kuratas. To help fund the necessary improvements, they have launched a Kickstarter campaign, in which they detail their plans to create a robot capable of handling anything Kuratas can throw at it. The power unit will be extensively upgraded, giving the Mark II five times its current horsepower, enabling it to cope with the demands of a heavier, energy-sapping frame.

As the creators of Kuratas have demanded that the duel involves hand-to-hand combat, the Mark II will need to be fitted with appropriate weaponry … options include crushing and grasping claws, shields and pneumatically-driven fists

Shock-mounted, steel armour will cover the majority of the Mark II’s body, enabling it to withstand considerable punishment from the five-ton-punching Kuratas. The current track base mobility system tops out at a measly four kilometres (2.5 miles) per hour; MegaBots plans to introduce a new, five times faster system designed by Howe and Howe Technology, who have designed similar systems for the vehicles seen in Hollywood blockbusters Mad Max: Fury Road and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. At the moment the Mark II is very top heavy, and risks toppling over should it take a punch or dish out a particularly powerful one itself. MegaBots is hoping to team up with IHMC Robotics, who specialise in robotic balance and control, making them the ideal company to design a custom system for the Mark II to ensure the robot stays upright no matter what happens.

 

Aug. 20, 2015 - Oakland, CA, USA - Megabots Inc. co-founder Gui Cavalcanti is photograped with his Mk II robot on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. The robot is 15 feet tall and was built at a cost of $200,000 in five months. (Credit Image: © Aric Crabb/TNS via ZUMA Wire)
The Megabots team have big plans for the Mark II, including increased power and steel armour

 

If the Kickstarter campaign raises £800,000 ($1.25 million), MegaBots will seek help from NASA to improve their current cockpit safety system. This will help the robot fight more aggressively without endangering the pilot and gunner inside. As the creators of Kuratas have demanded that the duel involves hand-to-hand ‘melee’ style combat, the Mark II will need to be fitted with appropriate weaponry. No one really knows what will work at this scale, but options include crushing and grasping claws, shields and pneumatically-driven fists. The designers themselves have said they would like to incorporate a giant chainsaw and shoulder-mounted Gatling guns, which fire out of eagle heads. Whichever combination of these gets the go-ahead, watching two giant robots knock the life out of each other will be quite a spectacle. It is worth mentioning that no details have been released relating to the upgrades that the Kuratas team are planning. The Japanese are keeping their cards close to their chest, but if the current model is anything to go by, they will be mightily impressive.

The tech behind the robots

Although both the MegaBot Mark II and Kuratas are piloted robots, they both require their own operating system to allow for effective human control. Kuratas uses V-Sido OS, which was designed by the project’s head roboticist, Wataru Yoshizaki. In terms of functionality, this software can be compared to the flight control systems, also known as avionics, present in all modern aircraft, as it handles all of the low level tasks while letting the pilot focus on high level commands. Specifically, V-Sido OS integrates routines for balance and movement, helping it to correct posture and prevent the robot from falling over if it is hit during combat or travels over a particularly uneven surface.

Robotics expert Watanaru Yoshizaki demonstrates how to operate the arm of a giant Kuratas robot © KIM KYUNG-HOON/Reuters/Corbis

 

The MegaBot Mark II uses Robot OS, an operating system that gives users a flexible framework for writing their own robot software, and is essentially a collection of tools, conventions and libraries that aim to simplify the unenviable task of coding a giant robot. It can be adapted for any mission, making it ideal for MegaBots as they aren’t entirely sure how their robot will complete simple undertakings, such as walking and maintaining its balance.

As robotics continue to develop, operating systems will be refined and improved. If robotics advances at the same rate as personal computing has done in the last 20 years, it won’t be long before robots are commonplace in both our homes and the workplace.

This article first appeared in How It Works issue 79 written by Phillip Watts

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