Sometime TV can be cool… as cool as a giant robot smashing its metal fist into another? Yeah exactly like that, because Syfy’s Robot Combat League (RCL) is the heavy metal equivalent of an MMA match between opponents who don’t really care if their guts get ripped out. So it’s like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, only on a huge scale where contestants vie for the title of the baddest mechanical to ever beat the absolute daylights out of the other. Giant bi-pedal robots fighting in an arena — who hasn’t daydreamed about this?
But before that can happen, the robots have to be built and animated so that they can rope-a-dope inside the ring and kick-ass. That’s where robotics expert Mark Setrakian comes in. He’s a leader in the sport of robot combat, and has the chops to prove it (he’s worked on creatures for Hellboy and Men in Black among others). If you doubt this, check out A.X.E (head shaped as the name implies), Brimstone (pummeling power), Commander (he’s heavily armed with tank tread feet), Drone Strike (barrel weapons) or any of the others he’s built for the express purpose of mechanized destruction. Better yet, let’s just get him to tell us about it.
Man Cave Daily: So how did you get started working with animatronics?
Mark Setrakian: I grew up in Northern California, and my first job was at ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) building animatronic puppets for the Howard the Duck movie — this was me doing creature effects in 1985, and for Howard we used little servos similar to that of model airplanes/cars and controlled them with a radio controller in real time. It was a simple method of control, like pulling a stick — similar to a traditional puppeteer working a string, only here using electronics and a radio.
Flash forward to the ’90s and I’ve started to write motion control software — How this came about is that my hobby is electronic music, and at the time I was experimenting with writing music performance software. I realized that what I was doing could be adapted for motion control. So I began working on my own custom software to create a physical performance; where moving a stick wouldn’t just activate a single servo but instead could cause 100 servos to move simultaneously — for example, not just causing an eyebrow on a puppet to raise, but causing the entire facial expression to change in a coordinated way — grief, joy, anger — under the control of a single joystick.
Man Cave Daily: But there’s more to the software than just pushing a button and sitting back, right?
Mark Setrakian: How we’re using software in RCL is to take real-time input from the robo-jockey and the robo-tech and process that input and map it to the many joints and actuators of the robot. The goal is to make controlling the robots as intuitive and transparent to the contestants as possible.
So you have a human operator wearing an exo-suit that has sensors throughout and translates the person’s movements in the joints and arms and torso into a direct corollary to the robot.
Case in point: twist the body to the left and a single potentiometer in the exo-suit measures the rotation, but there is no corresponding point of rotation in the robot. Instead, the computer captures and translates that movement and sends it into the robot where six hydraulic cylinders in the torso work together to recreate that twisting motion. What is happening is a transfer of human anatomy to robot anatomy, with the computer taking care of translating the difference between the two physical structures.
Man Cave Daily: Sounds pretty complex.
Mark Setrakian: It’s not just a simple “smash to the face” by pushing a fist forward while the other robot’s hand moves up to block it — many of the contestants are martial artists and what they do with their arms and shoulders is very specific, and the robots must faithfully recreate those actions — the movements may seem blunt but in reality they must be precise.
Man Cave Daily: So which one’s your favorite?
Mark Setrakian: I can’t really say I have any single favorite among the robots I made for RCL, but definitely Commander and A.X.E. are awesome, and I do love Scorpio. Part of the fun is that, while the core technology and inner structure of all the robots are similar — there are definitely different personalities working here, partly from the different designs and partly as the result of the operators controlling them — Steampunk, for example, is pretty dorky looking to me, but the team brought it to life and it grew on me as the contest went on. But don’t get me wrong — they’re all serious killing machines.
Man Cave Daily: Specs please.
Mark Setrakian: The robots weigh about 800 pounds each — some closer to 1000 — and the hydraulic cylinders are pressurized to 2000 psi (pound-force per square inch). What that means in practical terms is that a punch from one of these robots is like getting hit by a giant swinging a sledgehammer as hard as he can. During our tests, we had robot with a spiked fist punching holes into a 55 gallon drum and it was going through the steel like it was butter.
Man Cave Daily: How are they controlled?
Mark Setrakian: The robot is only fully online and active once it enters the arena — basically there are three people involved in giving the robot “life”: the robo-jockey in the exo-suit for controlling the torso and fists, the robo-tech in the command pod controlling the walking/movements, and on the sidelines there’s a systems operator that monitors the electronics and computer systems, and can ramp up the “pressure” to bring the robot up to full power.
When you consider that the robot is walked into the ring fully powered up through a tunnel from the pit where each waits before going into the arena — it makes sense to have a lot of safety features. You have the control signals going from the human operator over a 100 foot optical fiber into the robot. Doing this by radio waves could be extremely dangerous, if control was lost for even a moment — somebody could get killed.
Man Cave Daily: Just how serious can these guys get?
Mark Setrakian: The worst damage I saw was when one robot was basically cut it in half. In fact there is one robot that developed a reputation for tearing its opponents in two. The fights got better as the show progressed. The first fight for example — the producer that stood beside me at the side of the ring — his job is to work like a ref and monitor how the fighting is progressing and get the robots to separate if they get in a “clinch” like in a boxing match. So the first time oil started leaking and damage to the robot got too intense to keep going we figured the fight had to be stopped. Later, as the fights got more intense we just let them keep going and the destruction just got more and more outrageous.
Man Cave Daily: What do you want those viewing RCL to think once the show is over?
Mark Setrakian: The viewer is going to take away “No B.S., these robots really do beat the holy crap out of each other.” What you see on the screen is 100% real. And to my colleagues working in the field of robotics I’d like to say: please design responsibly, do not bring on the robotic apocalypse.
Check out Marshal’s reviews of The Coolest Stuff from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show or lust after the new Bentley Continental with us.