Return of the Robots

Television bosses have a habit of reviving old favourites, sometimes it’s a success (The X: Files, in my opinion) and then other times you wish you could forget that someone has hacked away at your childhood memories and remember the good old days (I’m looking at you, Powerpuff Girls).

The latest re-incarnation to appear on our screens is Robot Wars, a show that had many families spend their Friday evening watching robots; Matilda, Shunt, Dead Metal and who can forget, Sir Killalot, bashing their way into scraps of metal that teams of robot enthusiasts had whipped up in their garages and sheds. Cashing in on a perfect mix of nostalgia and an ignited interest in making things, there couldn’t be a better time for the series to return.

Since the original house robots retired in 2004, the technology landscape has changed dramatically thanks to the influence of the maker movement and advancements and availability in technologies such as CAD design and 3D printing. In fact, the technologies used to build robots have improved so much that the old robots wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against their bigger and better successors that were created by a UK company, Robo Challenge, a company acknowledged with possibly the coolest television credit ever, ‘Robot Consultants’. 

For this series the team were given a tight time frame to build the new robots and with the originals to hand, started by filling mood boards with imagery of tanks, medieval armour, sci-fi and generally “things that instil fear”. James Cooper, Creative Technologist at Robo Challenge, explained how the team set out to capture the personalities of the original robots but still make them look fresh.

“We wanted it to look like these were the same house robots as though they’d gone away, continued battling and now they’re stronger, battle hardened,” James explained. “It was really important that they weren’t pristine, they had to feel like they were the originals.”

Robo Challenge have been in the robotics industry for just under 10 years working on various TV shows and events, and James worked as an apprentice to Team Razer on the original series, so the Birmingham-based outfit was well-equipped with the BBC came calling. To get the robots ready in time, Paul Sohi, Product Designer at Autodesk was given the task of training the team up on Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software. Fusion was used for everything from design to testing and its cloud-based features meant that the team could share ideas remotely with each other and also with the BBC for approval.

“For the longest time there was always this bridge gap between what you’re doing on the screen and what you’re building in the real world,” Paul explained. “With Fusion it’s just so easy to test and simulate moving parts and make sure everything is going to work and there isn’t any collision.”

Spending just two days with the team in Birmingham, the downside to this cloud-based approach? Paul didn’t get a chance to play around with the robots himself and the first time he saw the finished product was on TV. 

Digital design was also helpful in making the show come together much quicker when selecting the 40 competing robot teams. Prospective battlers were able to submit 3D CAD drawings of their robots for consideration without needing to physically make them. But it’s not just CAD where these robots have had a significant power boost, one of the major advancements in technology over the last ten years has been in batteries. Originally teams used any power source they could get their hands on like car batteries or petrol engines whereas now thanks to advancements in mobile technology, makers can use lithium polymer batteries which are lighter, cheaper and much more powerful. James says “If you put the new robots next to the originals it would make them look like toys.”

The new bots are double the weight of the originals but they’re also much faster and powerful thanks to increased power in the driver motors and an added boost from 3D printing.

“10 years ago, 3D printing was very expensive, it wasn’t very stable so you couldn’t really use the part for anything, they were just visual copies,” James commented. “Nowadays ABS parts are perfect for making moulds for fibreglass if we really need strong parts but we use them a lot for just making brackets or funny shaped things. Before you would just have to try and fabricate something out of steel whereas now we can spend time designing the perfect part rather than spending time making it. We can leave it to print overnight and the job is done, which is really nice.”

The Robo Challenge workshop houses a range of printers including resin-based machines, a Stratasys Objet30 used for high-detail and four desktop Cubicon FDM printers. James says the team used 3D printing a lot throughout the process to get the green light on designs and even fabricate Matilda’s 36 iconic spikes which were created using 3D printed moulds. Whilst the team is keeping a close eye on the development of advanced technologies, in particular hybrid machines that combine metal 3D printing and CNC machining, for budding roboteers, the current availability of materials, machines and resources means it’s now easier than ever to get stuck in. 

“The affordability of materials, the maker movement in general and the accessibility to resources and tools has made it so much easier to build robots,” Paul commented. “Open source for example, is becoming a bigger and bigger part of hardware so accessibility to learning tools to build those robots is also becoming way easier.”

The Robo Challenge team was split into groups of three to produce Dead Metal, Matilda and Shunt but all three came together to work on Sir Killalot, the biggest of the lot. Re-imagined with a more organic shell of armour and exposed face, the CAD design took just a matter of days to complete before the team began 3D printing the chassis.

These robots are designed to battle so it’s probably not wise to get particularly precious about them, another reason why 3D printing is a suitable choice for quickly repairing any broken parts. For James and team, that’s what it’s all about and they’re hoping this series inspires wannabe engineers and makers to get back into their garages and come up with some worthy competitors (We’ve got one such competitor here at TCT Towers as our very own Dave Young, newcomer to our TCT Show team, battled it out with Team Apollo in the latest series and won. No big deal).

“These new robots are a force to be reckoned with,” Paul added. “To me this is what they were made for and I hope that there are some great competing robots out there because the power, in particular in Sir Killalot, that’s going to be a tough one to damage.”

“We really hope that people at home enjoy it and it gives us the opportunity to make new things,” James concluded. “Above everything, I hope it is celebrating and getting people back into their sheds and garages at home. That’s what we really hope comes across.”

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