Robot Wars: Violence in the name of science

CNN News

August 26, 1997

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- They stalk the ring with a steely
glare. The combatants, with names like Biohazard, Blendo,
Painful Wedgie and Killborg, have no pity. There are many
rules, but only one matters in this cage match -- kill or be

Ultimate fighting? No. This is Robot Wars, an annual
destination for people who enjoy the dual pastimes of
building things and smashing things. The latest battle took
place in San Francisco earlier this month.

The battlefield: a 30 foot by 54 foot plywood arena with a
smooth asphalt floor. An eight-foot-high wall of bulletproof
glass shields spectators from flying shrapnel.

The contestants: 100 machines, built by engineers, students
and tinkerers from around the world.

The objective: to score a "knockout" by immobilizing the
enemy -- by flipping, throwing, lifting or smashing it. If
both robots are still mobile when the five minute limit is
up, the judges select a winner based on the control and
style of the robots and the amount of damage inflicted.

The events: The "face-off," an elimination tournament of
one-on-one bouts, and the "melee," a free-for-all between
all the robots in each weight class until only one is left.

The combatants come in all different shapes and sizes. They
are divided into four weight classes, from 10 to 175 pounds.
They come armed with spikes, saw blades and all manner of
gripping, flipping and ripping implements of destruction.

"It's got some nice little spikes. It's got a skull to scare
the other robots," says one contestant, beaming with pride.

"We're gonna attempt to do some hacking with the front blade
and some cutting with the rotating top blade," says the
owner of "Sabotage," a sort of deranged upside-down

So what is the point of this mechanized metallic mayhem? The
answers are as varied as the competitors.

"Mostly fun," says one.

Another contestant vents his frustration with machines: "You
always get mad at your VCR, you always get mad at your
toaster, you always get mad at your dishwasher, but you
can't do anything about it. At Robot Wars, part of the
destructive energy comes from that frustration of dealing
with these everyday household items."

Robot Wars founder Marc Thorpe, formerly one of the special
effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, thinks the
event has an appeal beyond the violence.

"RW is so popular because of its unique mix of art,
technology, sport and theater in a way that explores and
celebrates basic life issues of survival and destruction
without compromising human values -- a rare combo in this
age of dehumanization and political correctness," Thorpe
says in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the
Robot Wars Web site.

Robot Wars' rules are fairly complex, to ensure both the
safety and entertainment value of the fights. The rules also
encourage creativity.

Legged robots are allowed to be heavier than their opponents
-- the walkers can weigh up to 300 pounds, compared to 175
for other robots. They're allowed to compete with the
lighter robots as an incentive to inventors.

There's even an event for autonomous robots, machines that
battle without input from their owners.

Thorpe, on his Web site, expresses high hopes for the future
of Robot Wars, looking forward to the day "when you begin to
see the budgets of engineering programs at colleges and
universities favorably compare to athletic programs as a
result of the popularity of Robot Wars."

In addition to the annual San Francisco Robot Wars contest,
other events are being planned, including a competition in
London set for November.

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