A quick Q&A with the Managing Director of Robo Challenge, James Cooper, the man behind the fearsome House Robots from the new series of Robot Wars.
How are the house robots on the show made? How do they go from drawing board to the arena?
The first thing that we did was assess the original house robots. We got them out of storage and quickly realised that they weren’t going to be up to scratch. They would’ve got torn apart by the latest breed of competitor.
We started out with their characters. We didn’t want to reinvent them. We wanted it to seem as if they’d have been battle hardened and were the same machines, just tougher and meaner. We did sketches on how different elements would have evolved and that gave us a good outline. You’ve also got to physically improve the performance of them. That was tricky, as Robot Wars hasn’t aired for 12-13 years so we had to build robots that would match the current competitor technology. Once we had made sure they had the power and the speed that they needed, we worked out hydraulics and pneumatics. This invloved the size of the rams etc.
We had two sorts of design methods. One of them involved structural analysis of the chassis while the other was a more organic design such as internal skeletons and other components like a cutout of a cardboard arm for Sir Killalot or tusks for Matilda. Visually, what would look really cool. The deadline was so tight that we didn’t get any time for trial runs!
What powers the drive systems?
There are two different things you’ve got to look at. Number one is duration. More batteries will give you better duration but it depends on what power is being used. Shunt for example uses very little power compared to Dead Metal or Matilda because its weapon is pneumatic. You only need a tiny pulse to trigger a pneumatic valve and the power comes from stored gas within the robot. Dead Metal and Matilda use another hefty motor to power their flywheels and saws.
We tend to use lithium and gel cell batteries because they’re nice and heavy, creating a good centre of gravityfor the robots when in the arena. We can draw lots of current out of them even with the weapons and drive systems on full power.
How have they been upgraded for the current series? What is the most fearsome piece of new tech?
The new house robots have been completely started from scratch. All of the original ones are still alive but they’re not running currently because it would take a lot of work to get them up to speed so we actually didn’t use any of the originals. We were originally thinking of getting those up and running but when we saw them we realised that actually these aren’t going to last very long when going up against spinner robots and things like that.
Sir Killerlot’s drive system – the original one – was just like a petrol powered bucket: it was just an off the shelf system. That was fine back in the old das because they were strong enough. Now we’ve had to design a whole new drive system that’s custom made. Even down to the little hubs that rotate the tracks around, they’re all custom made to be strong enough for taking down really big impacts so structurally, all of the house robots now are far beyond what the original ones were.
So, yeah, a lot has been improved. Killalot before just had fibre glass armour so it was a very weak sort of robot in reality. When you couple fibre glass armour with off the shelf track units and chassis components you can cause damage. In the original series, robot’s could tear Killalot’s track off and things like that. For this one, Killalot’s actually got some really tough armour, that’s military grade steel we use on Killalot. So now any robot that’s up to speed or out of control and coming at Killalot, he can drive through them at full speed without care of what will happen, because his armour is really tough stuff. That’s been the same for Shunt as well, his armour is made from military grade, high end stuff, which competitors would really struggle to cut through now.
What weapons from the competitors are the greatest threat to the House Robots?
What we found amazing was that we have access to all this amazing technology in our workshops but the competitors have been creating these machines in their sheds and their garages. And so clearly the whole point of Robot Wars is to celebrate these guys that have been creating these machines.
Then it came to filming and we saw a few that we were really impressed with that had made a machine with an incredibly powerful spinner, but none that we would worry about with the house robots. I mean they’re built to take on these big, destructive weapons. The biggest pain was the high-powered flippers, because they can lift over a ton so the house robots are still quite vulnerable to a good flipper, so that’s something we’re going to look at, and design some changes to them. I don’t know if you’ve seen this machine called Gabriel, it had these huge wheels made out of plastic; it looked quite flimsy, quite wobbly. It had this huge steel axe that swung over the top. The problem with that was that the wheels were so flimsy it was hard to control the robot. It was hard to grab these robots with the house robots because they were so maneuverable, so dance-y, so it was a really interesting way to tackle the Robot Wars problem of making a robot stronger, making it tough, making it powerful, they’ve come at it from a completely different perspective and it really is quite effective.
What is the key to making a good robot for robot combat?
There’s a few elements. The first is you have to have an effective weapon, there’s no point in designing a robot that can’t go for an opponent. But the most important thing I would say is the drive system. All of the past champions of Robot Wars have always had good drivers with very reliable, robust drive systems, they don’t need to be the most powerful, they don’t need to be the fastest, they just need to be very easy to drive, they need to be very maneuverable. And then that way you can deliver your weapon and your robot effectively against your opponent. And one more thing I would say is don’t compromise your drive system too much, you need to take your weapon against your opponent effectively.
If all the House Robots faced off against each other, who would win?
Obviously Killalot’s three times the weight of all the other house robots, so you’d have to say he’s got the most power, he’s got the best armour, and he’s got interesting weapons that can pick up the robots and spear them and things like that.
You’d have to say Killalot. But for the others, they all deliver a very different attack. Shunt’s axe will go through military grade steel and once Dead Metal’s got hold of you, you can’t get outside his claws. His saw is designed to melt through the opponent, so it can get through any weapon, any sort of material. The most dangerous one that we’ll only run for combat in a bullet proof arena is Matilda because the fly wheel on the back, it has so much energy in it. It’s got the most energy out of any of the house robots and causes the most damage. You’d have to say the most scariest weapon out of them all, has to be Matilda’s fly wheel.
Discover more amazing technology in the latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!