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Kicking Some Bot

Our guy inflicts--and suffers--robot pain in a BattleBot match.

February 15, 2001|DAVID COLKER |

In my hands are the controls to a 210-pound killer robot named BioHazard.

The crowd yells--some for me, but mostly for my robotic minion. A huge video screen follows every move of my robot's grudge match against opponent Ginsu. Rotary saws pop up from the arena floor. Huge hammers smash down with so much force that they shake the room.

And the crowd yells louder.

I am not worthy.

I am a guest controller in an exhibition round of "BattleBots," the highly successful cable television show that pits radio-controlled robots against each other in three-minute duels. Object: Inflict as much damage as possible by slamming opponents against metal spikes, hacking them with buzz saws or flipping them over like motorized turtles. It's R2-D2 as gladiator.

Normally, this is not my scene. But there is something about "BattleBots"--with its garage tinkerer ethic and bumper car sensibility--that is irresistibly American and even a bit nostalgic. The garage inventor is an icon epitomized by Henry Ford creating an automobile or Orville and Wilbur Wright building an airplane. "BattleBots" provides a brutally Darwinistic arena in which inventors can prove the worth of their creations.

On hand at this special exhibition are eight robots that have appeared on the Comedy Central show, all looking more menacing than they do on TV. They are not walking robots like in 1950s science fiction films but low-to-the-ground, compact machines capable of astonishing speed, agility and malice.

Overkill sports a mean-looking saw blade. Tazbot looks like a giant metallic insect with a pick ax. Diesector has two axes. Ginsu uses rotary blades for wheels. Toe Crusher does damage with a hammer-like spike. Minion carries a firefighter's emergency saw. The flying saucer-like Ziggo has spinning steel blades. The impervious-looking BioHazard inflicts robot pain with its sheer power and lifting arm.

Unlike the robots, the creators of the machines on hand for the event are soft-spoken, thoughtful and even shy. "I get all my aggression out during the matches," says Christian Carlberg, father of Minion, Overkill and Toe Crusher.

Not surprisingly, Carlberg, 30, of Santa Monica works in a field that requires hands-on electronic and engineering capability. He's a Walt Disney Co. imagineer who designs attractions for a new theme park in Tokyo.

All the BattleBot makers design and build their creations piece by piece in garages, rented spaces or, when a sympathetic supervisor looks the other way, at work. None are in it for the money. The machines cost $1,000 to $70,000 to build, according to "BattleBots" production coordinator Erica Smentowski. The top prize in last November's competition in Las Vegas: $6,000.

Most robot makers showed an aptitude for building machines at an early age. On the BattleBots Web site (, Donald Hutson--creator of Diesector and Tazbot--lists his influences as: "My mom and Legos." His day job in San Diego is customizing and repairing home medical equipment.

Each killer bot is a unique creation. On Carlberg's Web site,, he goes into detail on how each of his machines was developed, giving beginners a template from which to work. His highly shielded Minion has lost only one regulation match. "It climbed up a wall and got stuck there," he says during the competition, shaking his head. "Embarrassing but true."

And all part of the game. For the little boys who grew up on Lego and building things in shop, destruction is the soul mate of creation. And the crowds love it.

As tuxedoed ring announcer Mark Beiro makes preliminary comments in his hyped-up style, drawing out names like "Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiesector!" some of the bot creators gather around to offer hints. "It's not like being in a car when you are driving," says Carlberg. "It's out there and you are here. You can't feel what it's doing."

Carlo Bertocchini, the creator of BioHazard, goes over the remote control unit I'll be using. It's fairly straightforward--a mini-joystick on the right side controlled by the thumb sets the direction and speed of the bot.

"When the robot is speeding away from you, you move the stick as you see it. But when it is coming toward you, you have to think in reverse--pushing the stick to the right is going to turn it left," he says. "I try to imagine myself actually on the bot."

He also advises keeping the lifting arm of BioHazard up at all times unless it's maneuvered under an opponent. Otherwise it could snag on something. Isn't he afraid that someone who is not an expert in driving a bot will inadvertently do it damage?

"No offense," he says with a friendly smile, "but an amateur driver is not going to get up the speed to really get in trouble."

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