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BattleBots: Coping With Carnage

What it's like behind the scenes during a fight, and racing to rebuild a smashed-up robot

5 min read
Two low-slung robots, one with a horizontally spinning blade, the other with a vertical spinner, collide in an area in a shower of sparks
Discovery / BattleBots/ Raptor

If you've haven't seen last night's episode of Discovery's BattleBots yet, you might want to stop reading this until later because—spoiler alert—we got destroyed. Poor Ghost Raptor faced off against the Robotic Death Company's Cobalt and was left in dismembered pieces on the floor of the arena. Now that the fight has aired, and the smoke has (literally) cleared, we can tell you about what happened during and after the combat (to find about how BattleBots is set up, and how teams prepare, check out my earlier Spectrum guest post).

The first thing to know is that although there's been several weeks between the airing of our fight with Glitch and last night's bout, in reality these two brawls occurred on the same day. The fight against Glitch happened at 10 in the morning, and the fight against Cobalt was at 7 that evening. Between the time it took to get back to the Pit and the time needed to check out the robot with the BattleBots folks before the next round, Team Raptor was left with less than 7 hours to try to repair the damage from our first battle.

We sadly had to lose our flamethrower.

To be fair to the BattleBots producers, this compressed time frame wasn't their original intent but was due to problems in getting Glitch ready (which ultimately led to Raptor captain Chuck Pitzer helping them out in the Pit) that pushed the two rounds together. The rookie team behind Glitch are such sweethearts, and we really bonded with them on set. But in reality it caused us a four-day delay. And Glitch left us with quite some damage. They busted our weapons and electronic components and took a bite out of the side of the bot. We needed to swap a bunch of things out, and even machine some new parts, and we sadly had to lose our flamethrower. Mercifully, as I mentioned in my previous post, the Pit and surrounding tents are amazingly well equipped for this kind of work. Chuck was mostly to be found in the welding tent, which had all kinds of cool welding tools sponsored by Lincoln Electric, while the others were running around working on a new configuration optimized against Cobalt.

A woman and four men dressed in black T-shirts with a saber-toothed skeleton logo stand with a robot in front of a cheering crowdYou wouldn't know it from this picture, but we'd just finished a very tight race against time to get Ghost Raptor's weight under the acceptable limit.Discover / BattleBots

We were already quite tired: I slept only three hours the night before, and the fatigue may have led to us making an important mistake. One important thing when you create a new configuration is that you need to watch how it affects the weight of your robot, as it cannot exceed 114 kilograms. Knowing Cobalt's weapon—a heavy vertical spinner—we choose to put a more beefy (and thus also heavier) blade on Ghost Raptor's horizontal spinner, and with all the custom protective parts that Chuck was welding, we totally forgot to recheck the new weight. So once we loaded Ghost Raptor up with its LiPo batteries in the battery tent, and went for the official weigh-in, it turned out she was well overweight.

A few moments later we were getting scooped up and thrown into the wall. Oops! And then there was a big explosion.

We were already being called into the arena to get in line, so we needed to decide fast: a lighter blade? Less protection? We were racing against time at that point. We took off some of the protective front parts and had to remove one of the pair of forward projecting forks, so that is actually the reason Ghost Raptor went onto the battlegrounds with just one, which I thought looked kind of hilarious.

The fight itself was very dramatic—and I guess made for good TV. I remember us entering and the fight starting. Early on, we were in control thanks to Chuck's driving, and at one point we were dominant, but a few moments later we were getting scooped up and thrown into the wall by Matt Maxham, Cobalt's driver. Oops! And then there was a big explosion. Chuck is a great driver, and Ghost Raptor is a beautiful machine, but fragile when hit in the wrong parts. And Cobalt is just such a killer. Now, here Ghost Raptor was, her insides all torn out over the arena as white smoke curled and dripped out around her.

What a beautiful mess. For me, normally, seeing lithium batteries fail like this would be super bad, as I work on wearable technologies. I felt little like a rubbernecker at an accident, ogling Ghost Raptor's death throes. It might have been from the lack of sleep, but I could not take my eyes off it, it was so mesmerizing. Moments later, on screen you see a man emerge onto the arena floor with a large flexible smoke-ventilation tube and a fire extinguisher to put an end to the spectacle: This was actually Trey Roski, one of the founders of BattleBots.

I slept pretty well that night, with the explosion still in my head.

We gathered up the scattered parts that we had lovingly put together and brought Ghost Raptor back to the Pit. To get her back in fighting condition for more shenanigans, there was actually no better place than the Pit, with all its equipment. We looked at the pile of parts on the cart, and all I can remember is us all just bursting out laughing over the situation. Even the bigger parts were bent. It looked like robot spaghetti, just a bunch of junk. Did we even have enough spare parts to rebuild it?

We separated out all the useful pieces we could, working in the rough 41 ºC Vegas desert heat. Some parts we could use there and then, others would go back for postshow reconditioning work we just didn't have time for. In the end we were able to recover about 35 percent of the parts we needed. Some of the scrap was given away as mementos, but a lot of it went to BattleBots' on-site artist, David Fay. David used scrap from broken robots to make a really beautiful Trojan horse sculpture for a charity fundraiser.

During this time, Matt, Cobalt's driver, came over to say sorry for completely annihilating Ghost Raptor, and brought a signed piece of Cobalt with him—apparently we had at least taken a bite off of it midfight! But for us, the long day was finally over. We did a final review of the parts we had left, and then headed off to take a shower and jump in the pool of the hotel, where we discussed our rebuilding strategy for the next day. I slept pretty well that night, with the explosion still in my head and all that happened. It felt very, very relieving and wild in a weird way!

Ouch!

A man and a woman wearing KN95 masks pose with a damaged heavy blade in a workshop

Wipprecht / Raptor

Chuck Pitzer and I surveying the damage that our previous battle with Glitch caused to our main weapon blade.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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