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Questioning Robot Combat Paradigms
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Many elements of robot combat are simply taken for granted, but many things were different in early tournaments. Maybe it's time to think about alternatives to inject some variety in the sport? Some of the ideas I put forth below are 'half baked' but they might serve as a starting point for new competitions.

Let's take a look at some of the sport's paradigms:

Robots are classed by weight

Since the very first Robot Wars, robots have been classed into weight categories. This results in builders being driven toward exotic and expensive materials, battery technologies, motors, and construction techniques. Are there other classification criteria that could be used?

  • Dimensional Maximums: Perhaps anything you could pack into a 12" by 12" by 6" box? Exotic materials would no longer be worth the effort - two pounds of steel would do every bit as well as a pound of titanium. Designing would be easier -- there would be no 'overweight surprise' when the 'bot is assembled.

    The first draft of the rules for "Robotica" had no weight limits -- the robot just had to fit into a 4 foot cube. There could have been some VERY heavy robots had they stuck to that idea: sixty-four cubic feet of steel weighs in at over 30,000 pounds!

  • Limits on Battery Capacity: A 100 kilogram robot isn't going to get very far on a 50 watt/hour battery pack, but a 25 kilogram `bot could spin up a weapon and do some damage on that much power. This could be combined with dimensional limits.

Matches are timed

It's handy for a builder to know how much battery power they might need in a match, but it might make an interesting trade-off between aggression and staying power if there were no time limit. Do you try for a high-energy quick kill, or do you plan to outlast your opponent?

How do you prevent a match from turning into a couple of barely mobile machines creeping across the arena?

  • Open additional `hazards' as the match goes on.
  • A small arena could be slowly tilted `til one robot falls off.
  • The arena could `shrink' - if you're caught outside the marked radius after a `shrink', you're gone!
The 'Fight to the Finish' at Robotica wasn't timed (Robotica season 1 rules). It went on 'til somebody was pushed off the elevated arena. The arena guardrail dropped after one minute, but after that the `bots were on their own. In three seasons of Robotica there was never a dull match on the elevated platform.

Matches are scored

There were no `scoring' judges at the first Robot Wars (1994 Robot Wars rules). Matches went on for ten minutes or until someone was immobilized. If at the end of ten minutes both 'bots were still mobile they BOTH went thru to the next round. The audience often called for a 'rematch' at the early wars as well.

If you have judging, you have controversy. Robotica had technical judges to call penalties for things like `going out of bounds' and to determine whether specific goals had been completed, but there was no `scoring' as such. If you design a competition with very specific goals (first 'bot thru the course, last 'bot on the platform...) the judging becomes simple and technical in nature.

For an example of how convoluted and controversial scoring robot combat can be, see: Try Your Hand as a Combat Robot Judge.

You're supposed to damage the other robot

There are a good number of people in robot combat who really like to destroy stuff. OK. but should that be the entire purpose of the sport? In spite of the opinions of one well-known judge, the way matches are scored does heavilly influence the design and operation of combat robots. Current damage/agression scoring guidelines put a very narrow focus on the sport.

A lot of differences in the style of robotic combat can also be traced to the design of the combat arena:

  • The BattleBots box is completely enclosed - the only way to end the match and make sure you win before it goes to the judges is to render your opponent immobile. BattleBots breeds destructive robots.

  • The Robot Wars arena comes with a couple of options - you can throw an opponent out of the arena, you can push them into the pit, or you can immobilize. This results in Robot Wars having a much broader range of effective designs.

  • Sumo-based events like the 'Fight to the Finish' at Robotica reward pushing power and the ability to break your opponents traction. A whole-body spinner would be more dangerous to itself than to its opponent.

The rules for the first Robot Wars competition in San Francisco (1994) determined the winner as the 'bot that immobilized their opponent. Pinning against an arena obstacle was OK: thirty-seconds of immobility and you were gone. If both 'bots were mobile at the end of 10 minutes, they both advanced! Judges did no scoring, but could disqualify a robot for "excessive evasion".

The rules at Robot Wars 1995 shortened the matches to 5 minutes and settled draws by audience response. A panel of three judges stood by if the audience vote was close. The criteria of "Damage, Aggressiveness and Control" were first mentioned here. Immobilisation thru pinning was still the preferred method of winning.

The Northeast Robotics Club came up with rules for a featherweight 'Sportsman' class with weapon restrictions that reduce damage and encourage creative design. Section 2.2 of the 2007 Robot Fighting League Rules include specifications for this 30-pound sportsman class. The wording of these rule sets are still a bit vague, but the outlook is positive!

Robots fight in a bulletproof box with a flat floor

High-speed, high-energy weapons send shattered bot pieces in all directions. If you don't have rotary weapons or projectiles, the audience protection requirements become much less stringent.

Large boxes with walls of high-impact plastic are very expensive to construct, transport, set-up, tear-down, and maintain. There are very few heavyweight-rated arenas available in the whole of the country. Several robot combat tournaments have been held with only limited audience protection and strict limits on weaponry. I suspect these tournaments give insurance agents indigestion, but they are a lot of fun!

Want to discourage wedges? Attempts at rules to exclude wedges result in difficult to interpret language that ends up excluding other interesting designs as well (see section 2.2 of the RFL Rules). It's simpler and less restrictive to simply get rid of the smooth, flat floor. The 'real world' has rocks, lumps, and depressions that would cause real grief for wedges and potential danger for mega-spinners. Apply some reality!

See Antbotica for a small-scale example of thinking 'outside the box'.

Somebody always wins

I've already mentioned the 'double win' scenario from the first Robot Wars. There have been calls for a 'double loss' under certain conditions as well. This is not unheard of in other types of competition. It is possible for both contestants at a chess match to be eliminated thru a judges decision of 'double forfeit' if their play is determined to be somehow unworthy. It is also possible for both contestants in a drag race to be eliminated via a 'double red-light' jump start.

If the robots in a contest are simply not capable of doing what is required of them, then it may be best to award a 'double loss' and save the audience the hardship of watching either of them continue in the tournament.

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