Rob and Dan Build a Robot
Rob, my friend and former housemate, was the one who initially discovered Robot Wars. He described it to me, and told me to check out the web site. I thought it was pretty cool myself. We talked about how fun it would be to perhaps build our own robots and pit them against each other. For me it was mostly idle talk. I thought the idea was neat, but I never thought it was something I could do. One spring evening in '96, I said "Heck Rob, let's go see the contest." We lived in DC at the time. The contest was in San Fransisco in mid-August. I figured it would make a good vacation. Rob said "Why not do more than just watch? Let's build a robot." Some twisted part of my brain that wanted to spend many summer weekends and evenings indoors snapped, and I said "Sure".

We decided to enter the Featherweight (0-25 lbs) class, as it seemed easiest. I wanted to take a stock R/C car and modify it, adding armor and some sort of weapon. I figured that was about as much as we could handle. Rob, however, was more optimistic and insisted that we start from scratch. Throughout the whole project, Rob was always more optimistic, and his faith was usually justified.

We decided on a design to rip off Blendo, a robot in the previous year's competition. Blendo, a heavyweight, looked like an upside-down bowl on wheels. Attached to the rim of the bowl were small metal blades. The bowl spun at alarming speeds and accumulated tremendous kinetic energy. When the blades actually hit something, they just tore through it. Blendo was removed from competition after only one victorious bout because the judges were afraid that the flying pieces of its destroyed opponents could harm spectators. This, despite the fact that the spectators were kept behind plexiglass! Sounded good to us.

It also sounded not too complicated. Three motors would be needed - one for each drive wheel (that way we could avoid a steering mechanism - forward and reverse for each wheel would allow for crude steering) and one mounted vertically to spin a big disk atop the robot that would serve the function of Blendo's bowl.

After a couple tries with weak motors, we got the right type from a surplus catalog. For power, we used four motorcycle batteries (by the way - these are extremely unsafe and are now outlawed). We then proceeded to build a frame out of aluminum L-bar, because it was light, strong, easily available, and could be bolted together in many different ways. The disk on top of the robot we had mostly made at a local machine shop. It was made from a sheet of steel, with steel U-Bars to give it rigidity. We tried to concentrate most of the weight on the rim of the disk where it would be most effective in amassing energy to inflict damage.

Midway through construction, I finally sent in our entry to the contest. I then learned that the Featherweight spaces were all filled. I signed us up in the Lightweight (26-50 lbs) class. I was downcast about having to tell Rob that I had screwed up by waiting too long and that our chances of success had greatly diminished because we would be competing against heavier and better robots. As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise as our robot weighed in at 50 lbs, just barely a Lightweight!

Surprisingly enough, construction went fairly smoothly although it took MUCH more work that we had realized. One great help was the use of Andy's (a friend) cellar workshop. Perhaps also we were succesful because of our detailed schematics - not. We improvised along the way with our frame and it amazingly came together. Actually, I don't recommend this method. We bought new parts during construction and had to constantly modify our frame to accomodate them. As a result, we spent much extra time, as well as wasting weight on frame pieces that would not have been needed had we thought ahead.

I enlisted the help of a co-worker, Jason, on the electronics and wiring, and by the night before we flew out to the competition, we thought we had a robot that worked. (Not that we had actually completely tested it or anything). We were ready!