MegaBots Aims to Bring Giant Fighting Robots to a Sports Arena Near You

by Jeff Walsh
- Jul 1 2015 - 6 min read
Courtesy MegaBots, Inc.

“In a world where giant robots fight to the death before a cheering crowd … ”

If things go according to plan, that line will break out of the realm of movie trailers and video games and become an actual reality that you will be able to attend at your local sports arena.

When it does, you’ll have MegaBots to thank for making it happen.

A MegaBot prototype robot firing a paintball. Courtesy S.N. Jacobson.

While movies such as Pacific Rim, Real Steel, and The Matrix have shown battling robots with humans inside controlling them, MegaBots cofounders Matt Oehrlein and Gui Cavalcanti say their impetus to make robots battle predates modern movies.

“We were inspired by video games from middle school and high school,” Oehrlein says. “That’s where it started, so when you look at the robot, it does have this sort of chunky, boxy, meant-for-war look that you might find in one of those games, as opposed to giant robot ninjas.”

Oehrlein and Cavalcanti are in the early stages of creating MegaBots, in which 15-foot robots (with two-person teams inside of them) will shoot softball-size paintballs at each other until paint-splattered losers crawl out of a defeated robot while the audience cheers the robot and team that remain standing. That reality is at least two years away, though.

Prior to this point, both guys had pretty standard career paths. Oehrlein worked in the corporate research lab for Eaton Corporation and spent a lot of time working on advanced hydraulic control systems for construction equipment, hydraulic-hybrid power trains for military vehicles, and even garbage trucks. Or, as he puts it, “big metal things that use hydraulics to power themselves in novel ways.”

Cavalcanti works on an independent project with a company he cofounded called Project Hexapod, which is a 6,000-pound, six-legged robot that seats two people, powered by a 100-horsepower forklift engine “that was meant to walk in parades as a show-pony sort of robot.” Before Project Hexapod, Cavalcanti worked for Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google, on a 1,200-pound robotic pack mule called LS3.

Gui Cavalcanti (back) and Matt Oehrlein (front) inside the cockpit of MegaBot’s robot. Courtesy MegaBots, Inc.

Oehrlein says their paths leading to MegaBots just sort of fell into place.

“We’d been working at these robotics companies and doing these control systems,” he says. “So when it was time to figure out what to do next in life, it was just like, ‘Hey, it looks like the technology finally caught up to the point where we can actually build these robots, these mechs from science fiction, so why not just try that and see how far we get?”

Oehrlein says “a lot of people pursue these career tracks because they want to build cool shit, and then they end up working at an automotive company tweaking a transmission for 40 years. So we were like, ‘Let’s do this thing we all dreamed of, you know?’”

Their prototype robots build on their past experience combining basic actuators and valves from construction equipment with high-end sensors to tell the components what to do.

View from inside the cockpit. Courtesy MegaBots, Inc.

“It’s a combination of relatively low tech that’s very robust, and then high-tech components on top of that,” Oehrlein says. “So it uses the same software packages that a lot of high-end robotics use, but with construction-equipment hardware components. It’s kind of this mash-up of two different industries.”

But all of this under-the-hood work that the MegaBots team is doing is so that competitors can focus on building cool robots without becoming robotics experts. MegaBots will tune the inner workings of a robot to the point where competitors will get a kit from which they can build their own working robot. This will free the teams up to use their creativity on building unique robots, not becoming robotics specialists.

“You can envision all these different robots built with old car parts, farm equipment, construction vehicle parts, and that will give us a diversity of teams,” Oehrlein says. “The kit will enable people to do something like that, so they don’t need these advanced robotics degrees to pull something like that off.”

The competition itself will be similar to action figures and video games, where hits from the softball-size paintballs will result in certain actions affecting the robot.

“The robots calculate how much damage they’ve taken,” Cavalcanti says, “and then they start doing things like blowing their own limbs off. So, the right arm will fall off, the left leg falls off . . . it is supposed to look like a live-action video game. They sustain damage, they’re smoking, they’re on fire, and eventually they fall over and stop working.”

MegaBots ops team. Courtesy MegaBots, Inc.

Teams interested in creating their own 15-foot robots using the MegaBots technology will be able to use cloud-based software like Autodesk Fusion 360 to create their robot’s look on top of the core kit components. “People can definitely use Fusion 360 to design for the skeleton of their robots, and how it’s going to look,” Oehrlein says, noting that they already used Fusion 360 to receive design submissions for its MiniMegaBots competition.

“We basically said: ‘Here’s the starter kit; here’s the robot framework; build your robot on top of this framework,” Oehrlein says. “You can imagine that process just scaling up when it comes time.”

The irony of the entire MegaBots project is that they are not just building 15-foot fighting robots, but an entire sport and industry to propel this into becoming a real thing. Just this week MegaBots challenged Japan’s Suidobashi Heavy Industries (which also has a giant robot) to a duel in a viral YouTube video.

“The incredibly hard technology ends up being the easy part,” Oehrlein says, because you can’t just announce there will be robots fighting and expect to sell out a sports arena. People need to go in knowing the robots that are fighting, the people inside the robots, the teams that built them, and that requires an entire narrative to be built in advance of the fight actually happening.

“The general idea is it won’t be something out of the blue,” Cavalcanti says. “The goal is that leading up to the competition, there is some sort of documentary or reality show where you get to know the teams, know the robots, and the competition is just another chapter in the story.”

Which begs the question of just how much fun is it to be inside of a giant robot you built from the deep recesses of your teenage gamer fantasies as you’re being pummeled by softball-size paintballs. But Cavalcanti stays on point.

“It’s never supposed to be fun, man. That’s how you lose,” he says. “It’s supposed to be an awful experience. But . . . it’s superfun to watch people get blasted with stuff.”

And it wouldn’t seem right to talk to people building giant, fighting robots without asking the obvious question about Skynet, which is how the robots took over the planet in the Terminator movies. But Cavalcanti quickly shuts down that question.

“That’s it. Hang up.”

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