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Garwulf's Corner - Why Robot Wars matters
The musings of Robert B. Marks - author, editor, publisher, and researcher

Robert B. Marks
Date: 2013-03-02 13:06
Subject: Why Robot Wars matters
Security: Public
Location:In my chair
Tags:robogeddon, robot wars, robots, science, technology
Earlier this year, Roaming Robots in the United Kingdom announced something wonderful – they had just acquired the franchise rights to the Robot Wars brand, and Robot Wars was now going to return.  Not only was this a boost to Robot Wars fans like me, but it may also be one of the most important technology announcements of the year.

You see, back around 2004, I had the great pleasure of working as a lead writer and editor for Queen’s University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  My job was simple – highlight the department’s research to attract alumni contributions and recruit new students out of high school.  Underlying this was a creeping concern that was beginning to appear in trade journals – not of a brain drain, but of a straight-up talent shortage.  The number of people entering science and technology programs was dropping.  Today, it’s close to a crisis.  Thousands of entry-level technology jobs in the United States alone are going unfilled because there just aren’t enough college and university graduates to fill them.

The writers of the articles in the early days were baffled.  Science, technology, robotics, they all seemed to have become commonplace, and students wanted something more interesting.  Little, if anything, appeared to provide the surge needed into science and engineering programs.

Oddly enough, there was one solution that never seemed to get mentioned in those early articles: “Make it fun.”

And this brings me to Robot Wars.

Robot Wars was this British show where homemade remote-controlled machines battled to the death in an enclosed arena.  They used a variety of weapons, from spinning discs to flippers to axes and hammers.  The winning robot team received recognition and a trophy.

The show was a tremendous success.  Millions of viewers tuned in to the first season, which only had enough robots (and content) for six episodes.  By the fourth season, the show was an international hit, airing in dozens of countries worldwide.  But, most important of all was the ripple effect.

The robots of the first season were few in number and primitive.  They were so prone to breaking down that in a recent interview the show’s producer implied the first season host’s frequent snarkiness was due to frustration from filming delays as technicians tried to get competitors' robots moving.  The second season had enough robots for a full 16 episodes.  By the third season, there were enough robots that the BBC and Mentorn were turning most would-be competitors away, and three robots in particular – Razer, Chaos 2, and Hypno-Disc – started an all-out arms race among the roboteers.  By the seventh season, host Craig Charles announced that roboteering had grown to 10,000 teams building robots in the UK, and that Robot Wars had received requests for the contest rules from 100,000 roboteers worldwide.

But how did this happen?  And why did Robot Wars see a level of worldwide success and influence that Battlebots – its American counterpart founded by the earliest robot combat competitors – never achieved?  Robot combat may have been created in the United States, but it was the British television show that brought it to the world.

There were two reasons – the first was that Robot Wars was just fun from start to finish, and the second was an underlying message throughout the program and reinforced in its final minute: “You can do this too.”

The fun was deliberately crafted.  Robot Wars looked like a tournament to anybody watching, but in reality it was a game show.  Contestants were carefully chosen, and roboteering teams were highlighted in a manner designed to make viewers invest in them.  Ensuring a successful day of filming took priority over running robot battles, and roboteers often had to wait until lighting was fixed or adjusted before beginning their matches.

This carefully constructed fun made the underlying message even more powerful.  Teams were presented as average people working out of their garage.  While Battlebots allowed corporate sponsorship, with competitors permitted and even encouraged to stick company logos on their robots, the BBC had rules against it.  This removed the spectre of finding a corporate sponsor from the process of building a robot – if Team Razer could build a championship-level robot in their garage, then so could you.  Everything about the British presentation of combat robotics declared that it was friendly to amateur roboteers, and even a family sport.

And that was the most important thing of all – Robot Wars wasn’t just a competition for adults.  It was for kids as well.  Little Joe and Ellie Watts of Team Bigger Brother may not have built most of the robot themselves, but they certainly participated, and Joe Watts was an accomplished robot driver by the age of 10.  Together, they and the other numerous families who competed on Robot Wars proved that this was a family sport in which kids could, and should, be involved.

It’s that old saying: “Get them while they’re young.”  The kids involved in combat roboteering today will be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.  They might be helping out with a flipper heavyweight robot right now, but twenty years from now they could be building a Mars rover, helping solve the problems of world hunger, or creating reliable clean energy sources – and all because they learned that science and technology are fun in Robot Wars.

Combat robotics may not be a short-term solution to the problem of a science and technology talent drain, but it is certainly a major part of the long-term solution.  And with the return of the Robot Wars brand to the UK, and the news of an upcoming James Cameron-helmed robot combat show in the United States, the future of combat robotics – along with science and technology – looks bright indeed.
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User: ext_1723310
Date: 2013-03-27 20:18 (UTC)
Subject: What happens to Retired Robots? The Stag
Its just a daft video of the stag.:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOfi-HWQXro
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