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Giant robots: No longer a fantasy

26 Nov 2014  | Chris Wiltz

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"We all have different skills we bring to the table and complement each other well," Oehrlein, a control theory engineer, said. Stroup is an aerospace and mechanical engineer and fluid power expert by trade who has worked for the Department of Defence. And Calvanti rounds out the team as a mechanical engineer with years of experience working on legged robots.

Oehrlein said from the get-go the team wanted the robots to be a spectacle. A lot of the design engineering went toward creating something with a coolness and excitement factor that meets and exceeds its functionality. To really get audiences out of their seats MegaBots are going to have to bring the thrills of fictional robot combat to life as well, and that means taking heavy battle damage. "A lot of the design is really tailored to how do we make these things able to be destroyed without actually needing repair. We want to be able to do that without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair costs every time we hold an event," Oehrlein said.

A pilot inside of the MegaBot prototype

A pilot inside of the MegaBot prototype. The prototype includes a powered cockpit section, upper arm, and interchangeable cannon weapon that fires custom 6in, paint-filled projectiles. (Source: MegaBots Inc.)

Looking to design systems that could give off the effect of being destroyed without really being destroyed led the team to the development of the hydraulic power systems that go into the MegaBots' limbs. The result is a modular system where the limbs and weapons are fully detachable from the body. "The only thing that crosses the limbs is a power cable and an Ethernet cable. The only thing in the body is the battery, the pilot and computers (for control)," Oehrlein said.

This modular system also lends itself to a degree of customisation that Cavalcanti and the others hope participants will embrace. "Ideally we'll have many teams building many types of weapons to a sort of Formula 1-style rulebook," he said.

The MegaBots themselves are mainly steel, with steel body parts and tube stock cut to specific angles to form the robot's exoskeleton. Cavalcanti said the mechanical system designs are made in Autodesk Inventor. The hydraulics, the actuators that move the arms and legs and spin the torso, are components that can be found in aerospace systems or construction equipment. "Basically we're trying to create aerospace-grade design with industrial-grade parts," Oehrlein joked.

Right now the MegaBot prototype system runs on "way too many car batteries" according to Cavalcanti, but the final iteration will be powered by a large lithium-ion battery, similar to the type found in Tesla cars. All of this is controlled by a laptop running an algorithm to perform lower level motor controls and operated by two pilots.

"The two pilot system really started because we need someone focused on driving so the robot doesn't fall over," Cavalcanti said. "Playing video games, it was common to be able to twist the robot's torso 90 degrees. That's great for targeting, but you're not paying attention to where you're going so you run into houses and trees and fall over and all sorts of stuff. And that's fine in a video game, but it's not OK with a real robot." The added bonus is that a two-pilot system lends itself to an entertaining team dynamic.

MegaBots has engaged a Kickstarter campaign with a lofty $1.8 million funding goal. As of writing the campaign has raised just over $53,000 with eight days remaining. The team isn't deterred by this however, and have said an unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign would only delay things, not stop them altogether.

"We'll take a slightly longer approach to securing another investment round to further improve the technology and make another pass at it," Oehrlein said. He added they are also reaching out to more venture capitalists and looking to establish partnerships with sports networks, online gaming avenues, and event producers. "It boils down to we need to build at least two robots and put on an event," he said.

"We envision taking this to the scale of a worldwide sport. It's not supposed to be a one-time thing," Cavalcanti said. "We want to make this the next tech sports phenomenon."

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