Robot Attack!

After reading about combat bots, he thought such an event would be a near perfect combination of combustible creativity merged with hipster sensibility. Last year, he built a few bots and then held his first competition. Having written his master’s thesis on “de-territorialized spa
ce”—industrial urban wasteland where no one is sure who even owns the land—he decided such a spot would be suitable for bot battles. He landed on a plot on Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, dug a hole with a rented Bobcat to create a battleground, and then spread the word through friends and acquaintances about a forthcoming competition. Lining up five robots, including his own, he sold tickets to the event, a difficult chore since the fenceless site drew many freeloaders. It didn’t matter, though. He was building audience.

A few months later he rented the Aldrich Ice Arena in St. Paul, attracting 28 robots and 1,400 spectators to watch five minute bouts between robots organized into three divisions: lightweight (under 60 pounds), middleweights (60-120 pounds), and heavyweights (120-375 pounds). Spectators at the event witnessed a few seriously out-of-control robots who nearly destroyed the wooden ring he had built. The 250-pound railroad ties surrounding the ring failed to hold some bots back, and one called Rhino used its jackhammer nose to shred an entire section of the ring. “I kept telling people, ‘Get back! Get back!’” says VanderVelde. “The people near the ring ran for it.”

The episode taught him an important lesson. The next stage he designed, for Mech Wars III, had a plexiglass enclosure like his television counterparts, railroad ties bolted into an elevated steel floor, and two lidded openings where he could shoot brief bursts of fire into the fray. The total cost of the new stage was around $20,000 but spectators have better protection and combatants worry less that their bad steering might take out a bleacherful of fans.

Mech Wars III brought in 2,400 people to watch more than 60 bots over its two-day run at the Armory, VanderVelde’s greatest success so far. He’s making a living now solely off sponsoring the events while continuing to run them as a one-man band, serving as promoter, designer, planner, referee, and announcer. Proud of the achievement, VanderVelde likes to point out that the only place in the country where regular bot competitions are held outside Hollywood is the Twin Cities.

Just as Irwin Jacobs helped create a sport out of fishing tournaments with his FLW Tour, producing millionaire anglers along the way, so do the bot hypesters like VanderVelde and his wealthy TV counterparts want to build a sport out of battle bots. Bill Gurstelle, a telecommunications consultant and author of a how-to bot-building book, believes the sport’s growth is impeded by puny cash prizes, a lack of bot builders, and few sponsors. Still, he figures VanderVelde is on to something. “Compared with the television competitions, what he’s doing is pretty small–time. But it is the biggest regional thing going,” he says. “There’s nothing going on in many big cities. Nothing in Chicago, Detroit or New York, all of which seem like obvious markets.”

The fickle taste of the American public will determine whether combat bots have the staying power of such established motor spectacles as auto and cycle racing, monster truck rallies, and that old-time favorite, the demolition derby. With the number of TV competitions growing, it’ll be hard to count out a small operator like VanderVelde, who has a devoted following, a growing audience, and a strong bot-building community. If more people see combat bots on TV, more people will turn out to see the real thing when it comes to town. Minneapolis and St. Paul could become the off-Broadway of robot wars.

By mid-morning, Mech War III moves past the lightweight division into the middleweights. Mad Cow’s number comes up and the team carries the bot into the ring. Lovold steps up to the elevated stage with his radio in hand, ready to drive his rig into warfare, joined by Ewert. At the outset, Mad Cow shows signs of distress. Lovold works heroically to coax the bot into moving a foot or two. The team quickly surmises something is amiss with the battery or radio transmitter and both bots clear the ring. The judges promise a rematch after the completion of the heavyweight competition.

Many spectators come to see the heavyweights, the bot equivalent of monster trucks, the most brutal, metal-crushing, armor-munching competitors. When they slam together, they produce deafening crashes. “People want to see stuff blown apart and see sparks fly,” says Ian Burt, a veteran of “BattleBots” who built Tortoise, a favorite of fans. “When these combat bots hit, you can really feel the arena shake, they make a lot of noise. The big ones hit a lot harder.”

Neither Tortoise nor Team Whyachi ends up winning the heavyweight competition, which is the nature of combat bots. All the brainpower and money behind any combat bot can crumble in a moment. Dominance is a hard thing to achieve, and even Whyachi’s costly machines can get bumped by a bot constructed in a garage for less than $1,000 in materials.

Moving toward a showdown with Why Not, Lovold holds on to the belief that his bot just might pull off an upset. As the match begins, Why Not’s spinning blades land a few hits but Mad Cow takes the punishment bravely. Lovold begins maneuvering Mad Cow into position for a straight-on hit and charges forward with cool precision, slamming directly into Why Not’s spinning blades like a rod into a fan blade. It causes a complete shut down. But Mad Cow remains motionless too, like a boxer dumbfounded by the realization that he’s landed a fatal blow. Though Lovold struggles to move the shell-shocked bot, it dies a silent death. With two dead bots staring stupidly at each other in the ring, the decision is left to the judges. They take about two minutes to decide the match for Why Not.

Several in the crowd boo the decision. Lovold shrugs as he heads for lunch. No one really loses in combat bots. It’s double elimination, so Mad Cow will have at least one more chance to win. In fact, Mad Cow could still take the middleweight competition by winning every match from here on in. Not disappointed in the least, Lovold’s parting words are hopeful. “If we could have moved just a little bit, we would have won.”

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