Among the parade of homemade gadgetry displayed at MakerFaire Bay Area over the weekend, one project towered above the rest: a 15-foot tall mech robot straight out of the pages of some robopocalyptic sci-fi novel. The MegaBot is a proof of concept for now — the first piece of a mech robot fighting league dreamed up by East Coast engineer entrepreneurs Matt Oehrlein, Andrew Stroup and Gui Cavalcanti.
The robot that wowed crowds at the San Mateo Event Center last week is the culmination of a year's work. Undeterred by a Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of its lofty $1.8 million goal, the trio behind MegaBots determined that the best way to generate interest in a giant robot fighting league would be to actually build some giant fighting robots.
This first incarnation still has a ways to go before achieving peak Pacific Rim — but the paintball cannon-sporting, trailer-mounted mech was more than enough to capture the crowd's collective imagination. It belongs to a world in the not-so-distant future in which packed stadiums watch people do battle in robot suits — marrying the ingenuity and smarts of the maker community with the gripping potential for bodily injury that makes professional car racing so compelling.
Unable to attend the event myself, I gave Cavalcanti a call as he was in the process of transporting the massive bot to its next destination. The last time I had spoken with the MegaBots co-founder, he was working on a very different giant robot project — helping to build Stompy, a massive open-source hexapod developed in Artisan's Asylum, an enormous makerspace based in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Cavalcanti joined me to discuss the future of MegaBots and how the company planned to set itself apart from other robot fighting leagues (spoiler alert: theirs is a lot more dangerous). But first, some quick stats for the prototype bot.
|• Weight: 12,000 pounds
• Height: 11.5 feet squatting, 15 feet standing
• Cost: $175,000 to date. The final version will run around $1 million
• Cost: $175,000 to date. The final version will run around $1 million
• Special Feature: Arm cannons fire at speeds of around 120 miles per hour
• Top Speed: Three miles per hour — for now
You're transporting the robot as we speak, and you've already moved it across the country.
Correct. MegaBots started in Boston in May of last year. We had an angel investment to create the proof of concept of the first robot. We made the torso of the robot, the power unit that's intended to be upgraded to work inside the real robots, and the arm cannon. We have a torso and right arm. It's totally functional and swivels on top of a trailer. It's the minimal viable product that we built as a proof of concept for the technology. We also built a missile launcher. That was all done at Artisan's Asylum in Boston and we went to Wooster (Massachusetts) for assembly.
We took that robot to Kickstarter and announced that we wanted to take that fundamental technology to build robots and fight them in stadiums. The world basically said, "well, we don't believe you." People weren't willing to pay for tickets to an event where they had no idea what the robot is going to look like or where it was going to be.
And more importantly, how long it would actually take to come to fruition. It seems like the sort of thing that would be announced and then take 10 years to actually happen.
Yes, and it's funny because half the people said we were asking for too little money and half the people said we were asking for way too much money.
There really isn't a precedent for the amount of money it costs to build giant fighting robot mechs.
Right. And one of the big things I learned on Stompy is that it takes money. And when you don't have enough money, it takes time. And people get upset when it takes too much time. Yeah, $1.8 million is a high ticket price, but that's enough to fund two robots and barely pay staff.
Stompy is a wonderful project, and it's open-source and awesome, and we've been working on it every Sunday for the past two years. But the reason it can't get done faster is because it's a volunteer project. There's no way to speed it up while letting people keep their day jobs, which are paying the bills that keep them alive. You can't have both things — you can't have super cheap and super fast.
The motivation behind Stompy seems to be building a robot for the sake of itself, but there's an actual business plan behind MegaBots.
Yeah. MegaBots is not about "let's build a robot," it's about "let's build a sports league." Our goal is to turn the two-foot humanoid kit into a 15-foot robot. The idea is that we take the really hard parts out of building these mechs – the actuation, the power system, the balance control – and we make those into standardized hardware.
F1 [Formula One] and NASCAR have these rules where you have to have a specific engine with a specific horsepower. That would be part of the rules. You would have to build off of a frame with certain parameters. We'd give you the ammunition and you'd have to come up with a cannon and the look and feel, you'd come to the completion to compete.
So you're not building an army of robots yourself. You're looking to build teams of makers to compete in the league.
We want to lower the barrier to making these robots, so you can be a fabricator and make a mech. That's our ideal. We're targeting entertainment so these groups of badass fabricators who have been working with the tech they've been given so far. They'll suddenly be leveling up and entering the 21st century, building mechs starting from our frames.
How are MegaBots different than Battle Bots and the Robot Combat League? What sets you apart?
The baseline thing that sets us apart from any other show is that humans are actually inside the robots. We have two-person piloting teams that are inside each robot: the driver and the gunner. We really want to add that human element into the sport. When you look at Battle Bots, when you look at Robot Combat League, they're beautiful robots, but ultimately they're machines thrashing each other, and the human beings are off to the side.
But with NASCAR and F1, you get this thrill that you could be the person inside that thing. These guys are risking their lives, they can crash. There's nervous energy you get from watching that sport. F1 is the most watched sport in the world. There's something to the fact that there are human beings in danger that we want to bring to the sport.
After that, it's just scale. A Bottle Bot only comes up to your knees or waist. You stand next to a MegaBot and you'd don't come up to its knee. You can't even get in the cockpit when it's standing up. I can't scale this thing. It has to be down and ready for me to enter in order to turn it on. It triggers this whole idea that human beings are prey. We are tiny compared to what these robots are. Let's not get on their bad side.
So, the main thing setting this apart is fear. How much actual danger are we talking about here? Are these robots actually going to beat the [snot] out of each other?
The danger to an unprotected human being is pretty severe. If you get hit by one of these paintballs, you don't go to the hospital, you go to the morgue. The cannonballs are three pounds, moving at 120 miles per hour. The actuators that life the robots up exert about 28,000 pounds of force, each. Take your car, then take ten of your car per actuator, and that's what we can bench-press [Laughs]. The spectators are guarded by netting and plexiglass. The people inside the suits are in F1 and NASCAR-grade roll cages. This is not for the faint of heart.
You were at Maker Fair this weekend showing off an early prototype. What's the current timeline as far starting the league up?
We're talking to investors right now. That's all I can really say about that. But we would be looking at a year and a half to develop league-ready robots.