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Giant robots: No longer a fantasy

26 Nov 2014  | Chris Wiltz

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Three young engineers behind MegaBots are building a 15ft-tall, 15,000lb fighting machine that can be pilot-controlled, bringing to reality a stuff only found in science fiction. Imagine a stadium arena filled with screaming fans while robots blast each other apart. The more damage it takes, the more it slows and jams. Soon, the robot's two pilots (driver and gunnar) are rendered defenceless, submitting to defeat.

The idea is not without precedent. Some may remember the TV competition show BattleBots, which pitted homemade, remote-controlled machines against each other in cage match duels to the death. While the robots, though vicious, weren't terribly sophisticated by sci-fi standards, it was the closest thing robots had to a WWE. But MegaBots wants to do this on a grander scale.

Original concept art for a MegaBot

Original concept art for a MegaBot. The giant robot's arms are interchangeable pneumatic weapons that fire paint and paint-filled projectiles. (Source: MegaBots Inc.)

If the prototype is any indication, MegaBots will look just like the two-legged, metal humanoids of science fiction -- not the most functional design the team admits, but certainly the most awe-inspiring. "A lot of people have recommended that we think about four legs or six legs or treads or wheels," MegaBots co-founder Gui Cavalcanti stated. "But the thing that makes people super invested in the idea is the idea that (the robot) walks like all of the fictional robots that they've seen in movies, TV and video games. So we're pretty deliberately trying to hold the line, saying, 'No it has to be walking.' That's what mainstream audiences expect of giant combat robots."

"We were really careful to make these robots the physical manifestation of everyone's childhood dreams, and six-legged robots are not that," co-founder Matt Oehrlein added.

Cavalcanti and fellow co-founder Andrew Stroup struck up a friendship after meeting as contestants on a Discovery Channel reality show, The Big Brain Theory. "Andrew and I realised we both had a background in fluid power, hydraulic vehicles and robotics and things like that," Cavalcanti said. "We started talking about things like what did we ultimately dream about building when we first became engineers. The answer was giant robots."

Cavalcanti and Stroup then brought in Oehrlein, who they were familiar with from the MakerSpace community, to round out the team. R&D on the project started out almost as a joke or a hobby project, but after two years, and attracting angel investment, it has ballooned into something bigger. "We spend about 12 hours a day on average on this," Oehrlein said. "We design the system, order the parts, fabricate, weld, bolt, solder, program, pretty much everything." There are fabricators, welders and consultants on things such as projectile design and algorithms that work with them on a part-time basis, but the bulk of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) falls on the core team of Cavalcanti, Stroup and Oehrlein, all of whom still hold down full-time jobs.

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