It's a blast to go to a combat robotics event and watch two metal behemoths beat the battery packs out of each other in violent deathmatches. Most spectators, though, really don't have a clue about just how much time, effort, skill, creativity, cooperation, and (quite literally) blood, sweat, and tears go into the creation of one of these machines. Also, most spectators likely assume that there's no way they would ever be able to get involved in what looks to be such a technical pastime, but even robotics veterans had to get their start somewhere, and increasingly, that somewhere is high school.
Bots High, a feature documentary produced and directed by Joey Daoud, takes us along as three teams of high school students spend four months building 15 pound and 120 pound combat robots for a national competition in Florida. With help from faculty, parents, and volunteers, the teams (two of which are made up entirely of girls) have to design and then fabricate robots that have a fair chance of getting totally destroyed over the course of a single match.
Combat robotics is unlike any other robot competition (or most competitive sports, period) in that you run the risk of having months, or even years, of work completely obliterated in the space of three minutes or less. And not just "oh we have to to fix it now" obliterated, but more like "go get a broom to sweep up the sad little pile of metal splinters that used to be your prized combat robot" obliterated.
For the audience, watching this happen is a brief and highly entertaining tragedy. For the teams who build the robots, it's obviously a much bigger deal, and something that's probably impossible to understand without experiencing it yourself. By taking us through much of the process (the human process as well as the mechanical one), Bots High helps to provide some background and context to the sport as a whole, as you watch just how much effort it takes to get a robot from a design concept to something that's able to hold its own in the combat arena.
As the title implies, Bots High (which is 83 minutes long) spends time not just on the robots, but also on the environment in which they were created: high school. I found myself to be very impressed (perhaps even inspired) by the level of support that the teams received from faculty, parents, and volunteers. I'd like to think that this is because combat robotics (and robotics in general) is recognized as an incredible educational tool, because it absolutely is. You can disguise it in remote-controlled violence all you want, but the bottom line is that these kids are learning to design, to program, and to build with their hands. They're learning to work in teams, to troubleshoot, and to think on the fly. These are things that aren't especially easy to teach in the traditional sense, but they just happen in the context of combat robotics. It's not just about the fun, it's also about the future, and anybody who knows a kid who's interested in building stuff should absolutely watch this movie and then figure out a way to get themselves involved.
The stars of the film, for better or worse, are definitely the high school students on the individual teams. Consequently, there's, like, a lot of, like, you know, high school-ness that you'll have to sit through. To some extent, that's part of the charm: these kids aren't all super-nerds. They have lives, they have other priorities, they have hormones (ugh), and frequently they don't have much of a work-ethic. But they're also extraordinarily passionate about their robots, with a focus and level of commitment that I can't recall ever having at that age.
There might be a little too much time, though, spent on the obligatory high school boy/girl drama. It doesn't help that Will and Elizabeth (members of opposing teams) are flirting with each other while giggily trying not to be obvious about it, a phase that (even at my relatively advanced age) I definitely remember suffering through, and we're sort of left wondering whether they'll get to first base by the end of the film. Spoiler alert: maybe, but I definitely started to think to myself, "Okay, lock those two in a closet already and let's get back to the robots."
Fortunately, the film does get back to the robots, and in a big way. I certainly won't ruin the ending, but there's laughter and tears and violence (the good kind of violence) and lots and lots of screaming (the good kind of screaming), and by the wonderful end of it all, I was ready and willing to go back to high school (!) and have this whole amazing robotics experience that I so obviously missed out on.
The bottom line: If you can stand to be reminded of high school, this is a very well executed and altogether enjoyable documentary that might just inspire you to get involved in combat robotics yourself. And you absolutely should.
Bots High is currently being shown at film festivals. It will be available on DVD and online on Netflix and iTunes later this year. There will be a special free screening day on October 6th at multiple locations; to find a screening near you (or host one yourself) check out the website below.
[ Bots High ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.