How BattleBots Is Pushing Robotics Forward

The legacy of BattleBots extends far beyond smoldering hunks of metal.

By Chris Longo

The most imposing force in BattleBots Arena might be the “BattleBox.” The competition’s stage, which looks like a greenhouse, is made of bulletproof plastic that can consistently conquer flame-throwing robots. To get it into the studio, pieces of the box were placed in nine trucks, maxing out the weight capacity on the largest trucks the BattleBots brass could find. As far as using its heavy-duty stage to create a spectacle, the box is the show’s answer to the shock-absorbing canvas of WWE’s ring or UFC’s street-fight inspired Octagon. Unlike those stages, the box itself is an inextricable part of the competition. To maintain the safety of the people controlling the robots and the studio audience, the box needs to win every match.

“Over the years, the robots have gotten much better and stronger,” says BattleBots co-creator and executive producer Trey Roski. “We’ve been upgrading and making [the Box] better and better, and evolving with it.”

Tweaking, updating, and upgrading are words you constantly hear when you hang around the set of BattleBots. The Box may always be one step ahead, but now in its eighth season, the show remains a showcase for our continued fascination with the advancement of robotics.

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In its latest incarnation, BattleBots operates more like a traditional sports league than ever before. When the Discovery Channel and Science Channel picked up the series for a new season (it was last seen on ABC in 2016), the creators tore down and rebuilt the concept. This time there’s an entire season of matchups with 54 robots participating in up to four matches each. A ranking system then places the top 16 robots into a postseason winner-take-all tournament. 

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It’s all packaged and sold on TV with the macho-bravado of the WWE, and sportscaster Chris Rose and former UFC fighter Kenny Florian providing the color commentary. During an April taping, they cue Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” a deliciously on the nose stadium anthem, to heighten the energy level for the ensuing metal-on-metal action. Fans peacock for the cameras with signage that ranges from the show’s catchphrase, “It’s robot fighting time,” to gems like “This Is How Terminator Starts” and “#BotLivesMatter.”

After the music abruptly stops, a hush spreads over the audience. “Slight technical issue,” a voice said over the loudspeaker, “the record button was not pushed.” The crowd erupts in playful cheers and laugher, similar to how “the wave” infiltrates the stands in the late innings of a baseball game. As executive producer Tom Gutteridge put it, he’s never seen such an enthusiastic studio audience. “It’s like Comic-Con in there. People dress up as robots. They come with posters,” Gutteridge says. “I used to run the company that made American Idol and shows like that. There you pay a company to get an audience. This audience pays for their seats.”

Don’t let the rowdy audience and hype men fool you, this is a sport of brains, not brawn. In these robotic wars of attrition, the show’s reliance on the builders to quickly salvage and remedy damaged parts is key to keeping the production on schedule.

“We have like two days on and then a day off to allow them to rebuild because these bots genuinely get destroyed,” Gutteridge says. “There’s nothing rigged about the show at all. It’s not like WWE or whatever, you know everything is absolutely for real, so when they break down or they get smashed or trashed, which they do all the time, they need time to rebuild.”

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Witnessing a robot battered into a jagged hunk of metal and being carted off into a private builders’ area, which some call the “Botspital,” is a tough sight. Ray Billings, builder of Tombstone, the 2016 champion of BattleBots, says the repairs are crucial to making it through the season and tournament.

“You have to design, build, drive, and repair well. But there’s a room full of smart people that are all trying to do that,” Billings says. “So some of it is just making sure you have enough spare parts to keep it running 100 percent match after match. Some of it is just luck and nobody wants to admit that, but when they hit and they’re bouncing all around, it’s chaos. You’ve gotta do all the pieces right but there’s a little bit of luck in there too.” 

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Behind the scenes, the builders and producers all agree: BattleBots is a sport. And like any sport, its long term health is dependent on engaging youth participation.

I hope that we start to really inspire people to build their own robots,” Gutteridge says. “I think that we will have really achieved something if we can substantially increase the builder base and that people are inspired to build bots that aren’t just copycats of what we’ve got already.”

One team that stands out from the pack is Witch Doctor. The team built a configurable robot that can utilize different armor depending on the opponent, from the front wedge to the weapon assembly. It’s also one of the more stylish robots, with a green and purple paint job and skeleton decals. To match their robot, the team wears purple skeleton vests and decorative top hats.

“We do that to be more personable, especially to attract kids to the sport, because if you have a bunch of big, scary robots that are all bare metal and rusty, and kind of junkyard-looking, that doesn’t look like something accessible to kids,” says Witch Doctor builder Andrea Suarez.

Suarez’s journey to BattleBots started when she attended an all-girls high school that had a prominent robotics program. Even though she had no idea she wanted to pursue a career in engineering, it was studying robotics that got her hooked. When she’s not wearing the Witch Doctor costume and causing destruction in the box, she’s a medical device engineer.

“It’s a little different because we fix bones instead of robots for a living, but it’s a lot of the same elements and kind of the same high-stakes,” Suarez says. “Fixing the human body is the biggest responsibility you can have.”

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Suarez’s team is hoping they can help put kids on the same path to productive careers in the engineering field. They opened a non-profit “maker space” to encourage kids in the Miami area to get involved with robotics. As ambassadors for the sport, they teach kids how to build one to three-pound robots and battle them in a small arena.

For children who have trouble learning through traditional methods in school, BattleBots provides a real-world application to concepts that kids might struggle to connect with in the classroom. “When a kid learns pi building a BattleBot, that’s your wheel. That’s the size of your sprocket. That’s how you figure out how fast your robot’s going to go,” Roski says. 

If BattleBots is going to continue to evolve, it needs to inspire the next generation to see what’s beyond the box. In the new season, the producers placed a greater emphasis on showcasing the builders and the process of going from parts to robot-flipping machine. What gives Roski the hope that BattleBots’ legacy will continue is that the competition requires little more than your brain. He recalls a contestant who had no use of his legs or arms but who was able to design a robot using his chin.

“There is no handicap here,” Roski says. “It’s a sport of the brain. It’s a sport for smart people. We’re all equal here.”

Billings took his champion bot Tombstone on the road to hold displays for schools and community groups. During an event a few years ago, a young man walked up to Billings and asked if the builder remembered him: “I didn’t, and he said, ‘Well you went to my school and did this display. I’m going to Berkeley in the fall. I’m going to be a mechanical engineer and I just wanted to let you know that I did that because of you.’”