Walking around the pits behind the Robot Wars arena, I’m realising an ambition held since childhood. As an eight-year-old, I had fastidiously researched what was required to build my own; from truck windscreen wiper motors, lawnmower parts and heavy-duty battery packs. But it soon became apparent that getting hold of the hardware required was going to be a challenge; anything more ambitious than slightly modifying a Scalextric car was out of reach without expert guidance.
Now I’m standing by inventors tinkering away at their workbenches, as the battle-hungry bots return to UK television for the first time in over a decade. In the time the programme has been off-air, advances in robotics have propelled the field forward. When the opportunity to see the new robots in action came along, I wanted to see how much has changed and whether it has become any easier for a young inventor to build their robot. So I headed to the giant warehouse on the outskirts of Glasgow where the new series was being filmed.
The pits are a hive of activity. In between fights, competitors might only have a few minutes to patch up their robots. They work quickly and efficiently to repair damage and customise their bots in preparation for facing their next opponent. Now, most robots in the competition are modular in some way, allowing changes of weapon or armour more suited to their next foe.
With limited time, fellow competitors offer advice and assistance. In the arena they might be mortal enemies, but here they work together.
It’s easy to forget just how much technology has changed in the 15 years since the last series. “When Robot Wars was last on television, it was still five years until Apple would release the iPhone, four years until the launch of BBC iPlayer and Facebook wouldn’t enter our lives for another 12 months,” says Ed Hoppitt of Team Storm, one of the competitors in this series, who works day-to-day for VMware.
“We have seen huge changes since then and they are all making building robots more achievable than it has ever been. Access to learning and knowledge is easier and faster thanks to collaborative devices such as our phones which allow us to seek answers and expertise from anywhere in the world. At Team Storm we keep an iPad in the workshop so that we can look up data on a component or fix a problem immediately.”
“Access to these resources reduces the time it takes to learn and the chance of that first drive in the arena ending in disaster.”
It’s not just crowd-pleasing combat robots – arguably little more than suped-up radio-controlled cars – that have benefitted from recent advances
For some, a first trip to Robot Wars might result in an embarrassingly short bout. More than one of the fights I saw lasted less than 30 seconds before one of the robots brought about its own demise in the arena pit. At least in this case the competitors can retrieve their robot in one piece. The less fortunate have to sweep theirs up.
But it’s not just crowd-pleasing combat robots – arguably little more than suped-up radio-controlled cars – that have benefitted from the advances in accessible robotics. I wanted to see how much easier it is to build something programmable and intelligent that could do my bidding.
I paid a visit to Tim Freeburn, of PiBorg in the UK. His office on a business park near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, is an unlikely place to find a robotics business that ships its products internationally. PiBorg have benefitted from the support of crowd-funding site Kickstarter whose communities around the world have now lifted two of PiBorg’s projects off the ground.
The robots made here are all powered by Raspberry Pis – single-board computers, the latest of which is smaller than a credit card. This allows them to be fully programmable, autonomous, cheap and small.
“Raspberry Pis are fantastic because they offer you all the capabilities of a computer in something really small and light,” says Freeburn. “All you need to get started is a monitor, keyboard and mouse – which almost everyone has lying around somewhere.”
The smallest robot Freeburn shows me is the YetiBorg – about the size of a roller skate, with thick, fat wheels – which can be programmed to race following visual cues from the track in front of it and no input from a human, other than to write the code that it runs off.
There’s very little to this bot; a Raspberry Pi Zero – the smallest board, which retails for £4 – a motor controller, image sensor, four motors and a battery pack all strapped to the metal plate that makes its chassis. But it is fully autonomous, can be taught how to decide when to overtake, where to corner and even how to flip itself back over should it get into trouble.
“The other good thing about Raspberry Pi is the sense of community between those that use it,” says Freeburn. “We all help each other out, offer advice, it’s just a far less competitive environment than alternative communities. That might come in part from how cheap and easy it is to get started – but people seem more willing to share their ideas on Raspberry Pis.”
One of the most important changes in the last few years is how easy it is to find tutorials on YouTube, blogs, and experts who can offer advice – Tim Freeburn
The centre-piece of the PiBorg family is the DoodleBorg – a six-wheeled giant in comparison to the other robots here. It looks similar to a bomb disposal robot but without the arm. Tim explains that this is a show piece to demonstrate that even a much more powerful robot, running six enormous motors, can still be controlled with just a Raspberry Pi.
“The challenge is for people to see how much can be achieved with a Raspberry Pi. We tried to push the boundaries of how big a robot you can power with one. This DoodleBorg is tough enough for an adult to stand on it. There could be practical applications for this robot too, but it’s up to users to show how much can be done by just getting started.”
“One of the most important changes in the last few years is how easy it is to find tutorials on YouTube, blogs, and experts who can offer advice online and in forums," he says. “Whereas 10 to 20 years ago you wouldn’t have had access to any of that information.”
I can see some signs of this in the Robot Wars arena. Many of the parts needed to build a combat robot are available in specialist online shops – meaning competitors are often using the same battery packs, motors and controllers as each other.
“Entrepreneurial teams, who have managed to solve a particular problem or challenge, have taken that solution and are now marketing them to other builders, meaning access to off-the-shelf parts is much easier,” says Hoppitt. “To be at the high end of the sport still takes significant investment, with people spending thousands of pounds,” he adds – but for keen amateurs, it is still easier to get started.
“One of the values of Robot Wars that appealed to Team Storm was that it remains focused on inspiring a new generation,” says Hoppitt. “This means that you won’t just see robots worth tens of thousands, like you might see on some of the other popular shows –particularly in the US.”
Hoppitt’s parting advice to future roboteers is not to give up. “The only way you learn in robot building is when something breaks. In a way, building the robot isn’t the hard part – keeping it running at an event is. When something breaks, you go away and understand why it broke and you make it stronger. Robots are always changing and evolving. Even Storm 2, which looks the same as it did back in the last series of Robot Wars, has evolved under the cover.”
As an eight-year-old, I did give up – because the barrier to entry then was just too high. But it doesn’t have to be that way for the next wave of enterprising roboteers. The resources are there, the technology is available; all that’s needed now is some imagination.
William Park is BBC Future's social media producer. He tweets at @williamhpark.
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