Robot Riots
A transcript of an interview with Team Run Amok

The following is the transcript of an interview from July, 2001 for the authors of Robot Riots -- excerpts of which appear in their book. It's my favorite book for robot team info and interviews. If you can't find a copy in your favorite bookstore, write to me.

"Filled with tons of useful insights, Robot Riots covers the bot fighting scene and many of its key playersófrom infamous combat bots to their brilliant builders. Wanna learn how to build your own deadly machine? We've got the inside scoop from champion builders. Dying to find the best bot hot spots? We cover the best places for your bot fix. Itching for a fight? This book captures some of the most bodacious battles in bot history! These bots are hot, and this book can help you get in on the action!"


* Describe the first time you remember being interested in robots. What motivated you to build your own bot?

I grew up in the 50ís and early 60ís and watched a lot of bad science fiction movies with evil robots that I thought were really frightening and really cool. I suppose the first robot I saw may have been Robbie the Robot from "Forbidden Planet". I started building "robots" out of cardboard boxes and tin foil to decorate my childhood bedroom. I can remember a few that I built with my Erector set. Young boys build robots with Legos now, but itís all the same idea.

A few decades passed, and I found some small robot kits had become available. By this time, Iíd been involved in remote control cars and boats for some time, and had a little experience in electronics. I put together a few of the kits -- not combat robots at all, but harmless little Ďbots that crawled around the room and had some rudimentary intelligence. About this time, the first hobby computers came along. I saved up a few dollars and bought an early Commodore machine and spent a lot of time teaching myself programming and learning to interface the computer to the "real world".

A couple more decades pass. I stumbled across some magazine articles and a few snippets of video about some guys in the Bay Area who were building robots to fight each other. I kept my ears open and tried to dig up more information. I caught the BattleBots "pay-per-view" event a few years later and started keeping a notebook on ideas for some hypothetical robot with which I might compete in the future. This all seemed to be a perfect match for the skills and aptitudes that I had in my resume.

*How did you get involved in robot competitions/combat?

I was sitting at home, just having watched an episode of "Junkyard Wars" on the television, when a very short notice came on over the credits: " Visit our website now to sign up for the TLC Robot Challenge." My son (Aaron, age 9) had become a bigger fan of robot combat than I was. He could name every Ďbot from the BattleBots tournaments, who built them, who they had fought against, and what their strengths and weaknesses were. I had a notebook full of designs that I was going to get to -- someday. This looked like a perfect father/son project.

I was at my computer and on the TLC website inside of two minutes. I requested an application form. This would be perfect! It would give me a specific date when the Ďbot would have to be completed (no more "someday"), and the unusual format of the event would give a level playing field for first-time competitors to take on the more seasoned veterans. One of my talents is getting something to work well on the first try, and the Robotica competition would be a "first try" for everyone. I filled in the application, sent it in, and was accepted!

* What are some of your influences as a builder? More specifically, what was the inspiration for Run Amok?

Iím a long-time fan of automobile racing -- particularly formula and sports racing cars from the 50ís and 60ís. One of the dominant builders from that period was Colin Chapman, who designed and built the Lotus race and road cars. Colin's genius was in his ability to see the beauty and functionality of simple design over needless complexity. He was also notoriously "thrifty", and would spend hours reading thru automotive parts catalogues in search of off-the-shelf parts that he could use for racing applications. In so doing, he would save himself the expense of machining custom pieces. One of the words that he coined was "simplificate".

The Lotus design philosophy was a major influence in the design for Run Amok. I carefully examined the challenges of the courses laid out for Robotica -- challenges of speed, maneuverability, toughness, and power. I also examined my own strengths and weaknesses. In particular, I had no experience with "tank steer" style robots but quite a bit with "pivot steer" systems in remote control cars. I wanted something that I would be comfortable with driving, and made an early decision to go with an automotive steering system where the front wheels actually turn to steer the vehicle. For the sake of simplicity, I also wanted a single drive-motor rather than the two or more used by most bots. After I examined a number of design alternatives and rejected them, I stumbled across a web site from a guy in Florida who had built a couple of remote controlled lawn mowers. As soon as I saw the pictures of the mowers, I knew that I had found the concept around which Run Amok could be built. The mowers were simple, tough, and nimble -- just what I wanted for Run Amok.

*What are some of the features of Run Amok that make it such a successful competitor?

Run Amok was designed specifically for the Robotica challenges. I think a number of the other teams built 'bots with which they intended to go on to other robot competitions, or were unduly influenced by the designs that they had seen in such battle-centered contests. The design was simple, rugged, used proven components, and was easy to repair and maintain. She is a true general purpose machine, not the best at any of the specific challenges, but able to do a journeyman's job at any of them

I also incorporated an oversized luck tank in her design, which we completely drained during each and every match.

*Who are some of your favorite bots - and most feared competitors? Why?

I'm very fond of the more artistic and creative efforts of builders that you may not even get to see on the televised portion of the shows. At Robotica, Pandora's 'Bot was a particular favorite. John Skidmore used great ingenuity and imagination to get around the technical challenges of building a 'bot. It was unusual and beautiful. At the end of the competition, he disassembled Pandora and gave the pieces away to other builders. Pandora's legacy will live on in future 'bots. Very classy!

As more serious competitors, I admire Team JuggerBot. Their robots are always well prepared and thoroughly tested. Their teamwork in the pits is a model for other competitors to learn from and follow. The members of the team are quite diverse in their talents, and they seem to share a quirky sense of humor. At Robot Wars they showed up with a robot built to burst into flames as a distraction to the other teams, and they dressed in fur cave-man outfits. You have to like that!

Feared competitors? You cannot have any fear of your competition. All 'bots have weaknesses, and it is up to the team to find and take advantage of the weakness in the other 'bot. My greatest concern comes in competing against 'bots that I have not seen before -- who knows what they are capable of and what their weaknesses might be? Losing is far from the worst thing that can happen to a team, and having your 'bot destroyed is not particularly a disaster either. Failing to compete honorably is much worse.

*What was it like to compete in Robotica? What's the best thing about this competition? Have you ever competed in any other robot competitions?

Robotica was our first robot competition. The event took place over four very long days at the old ABC studios in Hollywood. The "General Hospital" soap opera films on a nearby sound stage, and it was a little odd to wheel your robot past sets and props from a TV series. I actually tried to use a pay phone near the robot storage impound before I realized it was attached to a set as a prop.

Each day's competition started early in the morning and didn't end until early the next morning! First order of business was qualifying for that day's competition. More robots were invited to the event than would be allowed to actually compete, so each morning any available robots entered the qualifying trials. The trials were comprised of two parts:

    • A one-minute timed run around the figure-8 track -- each lap counts one point.
    • Six small pyramids of sand-filled paint cans scattered around the floor -- knock each one down for a point. Bonus point if, after knocking down all six pyramids, you can push a large plywood box three feet before time is up.

The eight highest scoring 'bots got to compete that day in the filming of two shows. The others could try again the next day. Next, the day's competitors moved their equipment into the pit area and got fitted for jump suits. A quick weigh-in for each 'bot, and then a lunch break. After lunch, the Speedway competition, followed by an official 45-minute work period to repair and modify the 'bots for the next event. Each of the special sets had to me rolled out of the studio, and the next set rolled in and tested before the next phase of the competition could go on. This took a lot of time. By early evening, the set for The Maze was ready, and the event continued. Another 45-minute work period, a dinner break, and then just wait for the next event.

During the wait periods, we filmed interviews and some shots of the robots entering the arena. We drank coffee and juice. We talked to other teams. We hung around the sound stage and watched the hosts shoot some between-event segments. The audience was being entertained by a couple of stand-up comedians who worked the crowd and gave away small prizes -- there really wasn't a lot for the audience to do while all the set changes were going on.

The Gauntlet took a lot of time to set up between runs. The debris from the previous run was cleaned up, the obstacle walls rebuilt, and the whole thing reset for another shoot. At the end of The Gauntlet, four of the teams were eliminated from the competition and could pack up. The other four went to work to prep for the Fight to the Finish.

The raised platform the final event took a while to set-up. The flaming torches were under close scrutiny by the LA County Fire Marshall. The guy in charge of the torches for the competition took the competitors aside, one-by-one, and asked them to please do their best to avoid launching their opponent off the platform toward one of the flaming propane torches. We each kept a straight face when we promised that we'd do our very best to avoid doing that.

The Fight to the Finish for each round took place in the wee hours of the morning. On the first day of shooting, they were running so late that they didn't get to it, and so we had four platform battles on the second night. Everybody was really tired, and the real audience had long since gone home. The stands were filled with stage crew, robot teams, and their families. They cheered at least as loud as the larger real audience had.

If you made it thru the Fight to the Finish, you got to come back in one, two, or three days and start all over again!

What was the best thing about Robotica? The competition was more than a test of brute fighting power. The 'bots were tested in a variety of ways which, as a builder, I found very rewarding. The production crew was very attentive to the teams' needs: any request for information was handled immediately. The contestants weren't lost in a sea of other competitors -- there were only about 30 teams. I made some very good friends amongst the other competitors as well.

Since Robotica, Team Run Amok has competed in 'Robot Wars - Extreme Warriors', which will air on TNN. We added a big, nasty looking weapon to the top of Run Amok, and made a few less visible changes as well. The new 'bot was named 'Run Away!' and looked very formidable. It was a wildly different experience from Robotica. The event was held in London, England in mid-summer. It was good to meet up with some friends from Robotica, and to meet some new builders and see their creations. Again, the production crew was very nice to the teams and treated us very well. There were quite a few more 'bots at Robot Wars, and they were all competing at once in a variety of different events which added quite a bit to the confusion level. I would be happy to be invited back to either event in the future.

Will Team Run Amok compete at BattleBots? Well, not with our current robot. We have several plans on the drawing board, a few of which might make good competitors in the BattleBots series. Time will tell.

*What's the best thing about robot competitions/combat (e.g. building, winning, meeting other people, etc.)? Why?

There are lots of great things about robot competition. One thing that I particularly do not like is the building of the 'bot to a tight time schedule. We had seven weeks from the time the Robotics rules were released until we had to ship Run Amok off to LA. In those seven weeks, I lost 15 pounds and worried myself quite sick. I couldn't sleep nights for having my head abuzz with ideas and wild concepts.

Certainly, winning Robotica was a gigantic thrill that I hope all of the readers can equal some day. I was so exhausted by the end of the competition that I was really uncertain as to exactly what had happened. I asked my wife many times for several weeks afterward, "Who won Robotica?" She assured me that, in fact, we had won Robotica. It became easier to accept after the engraved trophy arrived, and after I got to see the show on TLC a few weeks later. I was working almost entirely on adrenaline and reflexes during the finals, and watching the show filled in a lot of blank spots in my memory.

Perhaps the most lasting benefit of competition is the bond that it helped to forge between my son and myself. He feels, quite correctly, that he is a part of something that many people enjoy and find worthwhile. I think he has learned a lot about sportsmanship and competition. I have also learned to respect his ideas and his ability to enjoy the competition regardless of our team's success or lack thereof.

*What's it like working as a father/son duo on bots? How long have you been a team? How has it changed your relationship?

Aaron Max and I have teamed up for various small competitions for about three years. I've tried to involve him in whatever projects I've been working on since he was tall enough to see what was on my workbench. We have had some small competition successes in the past, slot racing and building a gravity racer out of vegetables. These things have helped me to understand Max better as a person, and I think I've been able to share some of my values with him.

I also want to comment that this is a full family effort. My wife Lissa is as important to our teamwork as are any of us. She works out logistics, serves as team psychologist and tracks our finances. She also asks key questions about design elements that have resulted in major re-designs on more than one occasion.

*What do you do when you're not building bots? What are your other interests/hobbies? What are your day jobs?

This robot combat thing can take over your life -- be careful with it! I thought that I could build a robot, compete once, and then hang up my hat and move on. When I told some of the other teams about this, they just laughed and told me, "Thereís no quitting robots." They may be right.

Before robots, was a performing magician; I entertained at parties and corporate events. People used to come up to me and ask to see a new magic trick. Now, everyone asks how the robot is doing. I still do a few shows when I can wedge them in, but I think I could get more bookings just taking the robot out for exhibitions.

I also enjoy old British sports cars. My current car is a replica of a 1957 Lotus Eleven sports racer. I found it in a barn in upstate Washington about 6 years ago and spent a year and a half scrounging parts and putting it together. I drive it on the street and on the track, and enjoy every loud, hot, jarring mile. Iíve never added up the receipts for the construction of the car, and I have no intention of ever selling it.

My day job? I work for the Oregon Department of Transportation. My job title is officially "Transportation Economist". I examine the potential economic impacts of changes to departmental policy or new state legislation.

*How do your explain your interest in robots to people who don't know anything about them? Do you think of robot combat as more of an art, science, or sport?

I donít! Iíll mention combat robotics, and if they havenít seen one of the TV shows, I change the subject. I just donít have words to describe the sport to those who have not seen it. I do carry a videotape in my car, and will loan it out to interested people -- but a verbal explanation is out of the question.

Robotic combat is a sport. Like many sports, it contains elements of art and science. Some competitors lean heavily toward science and others lean well toward the artistic aspects. Itís one of the things that make the competitions so interesting!

*Why do you think robot competitions/combat is so popular?

I like to draw a comparison between robot combat and the old circus lion tamers. People are afraid of the unknown, and the unknown used to be represented by savage beasts from foreign lands. It was both comforting and exciting to go to the circus and watch a man dominate this fearful unknown; make the lions sit up; obey his commands; and even make them do silly little tricks. Today, I think many people fear technology. They may find it comforting to watch technology being put to the test and showing its weaknesses. I think people like to see robots go out of control and to appear as little more than mechanical clowns for their amusement.

There is also a belief in a good segment of the audience that they could be out there with a robot that they build in their garage. At the moment, that belief is true! Pretty much anyone can get out there and build a perfectly competitive robot -- it really isnít rocket science. How much longer this will be true is in interesting question.

Of course, it could be that people just like seeing stuff get broken!

*How would you characterize bots fans as opposed to rugby or football fans? What about people who enjoy darts or video games?

The American fans are still pretty low-key. Judging from the mail I get, the average fan is a thirteen year-old boy who wants to build his own combat robot and would like some information and encouragement. At the events, the fans represent a broader demographic, and are keen to find a favorite robot and root for it. They appreciate good sportsmanship and hard-fought victory.

We just returned from Robot Wars in England, where the fans there are quite different. They seem to root for the destruction of any and all of the competitors in a unified and rather bloodthirsty manner. The questions posed by the younger fans are also different: more targeted toward design concepts than building specifics. Competing in an arena surrounded by 2000 of these fans shouting and chanting is quite an experience. The noise level was comparable to a NBA playoff game!

I think that television coverage is trying to push robot combat toward the same audience that now watches professional wrestling. Robot Wars in the US will even have a retired WWF wrestler as host. I don't think this matches up well with the personalities of the teams and builders, but it may be point the way toward the future of the sport.

*How would you characterize the code of conduct at bot matches? Are there any unwritten rules first-time competitors should know about?

Once the match starts, there is no code of conduct. Friend or mortal foe, you treat any Ďbot in the arena as alien scum to be crushed flat. Give no mercy and expect no mercy. If your Ďbot gets turned into steel wool, you just laugh, shake your opponentís hand, and go off to build a new Ďbot that will do the same to them the next time you cross paths.

Out in the pits, itís a whole different story. Everybody who builds a robot and shows up to compete has a certain level of respect for everyone who has done the same. If youíre pleasant and show reasonable humility, the other builders will go out of their way to help you out if you get into a jam. Tools, parts, and manpower will be showered on a competitor in time of need, even by the team you may be going up against in the next round. On the other hand, if you show up and behave like an ass, youíre gonna find the pits a lonely place.

*What are the top 3 tips you'd give to novice bot builders to help them get started and avoid mistakes you made when you first started building?

  1. Keep the design of your first 'bot simple. You aren't gonna win anything with a machine that exceeds your capacity to build, drive, and maintain -- it will only add to your stress level at the event. That fancy weapon system you really want to build isn't going to have a chance to destroy the opposition if your drive train breaks down and leaves you stranded in the middle of the arena. Work with no more than one new technology at a time.

  2. Read absolutely everything that the successful builders have written on web sites and discussion groups. Most builders are very generous with their knowledge and you can learn a great deal from their experience. After you have read up on the subject, you can write to specific builders with specific questions -- but please read the information on their website first, and ask specific questions. Do not write to a builder and ask, "I want to build a robot -- how do I do that?"

  3. Schedule enough time to get your 'bot built and tested well before the event. I've seen a number of teams show up at events with unfinished robots that they attempt to put together at the last minute. This does not work. Run Amok was completed and ready for testing only three days before we had to ship her out for Robotica, but I found and corrected several problems with her in that short period that would have been fatal in competition.

*Is there anything you've learned about robots, builders, etc. that you think might surprise people?

You mean other than the fact that all the teams wear women's underwear? No, can't think of a thing.

*Are there certain words you think every robot fan should understand? Please give us some examples, and your own definitions of these words.

Yes -- quite seriously I think every robot fan should know the definition of "Robot". Many people will try to argue that the mechanical devices we enter into combat with are not robots because they are not autonomous - that is, because they do not "think for themselves" and require external control from the operator. Where this concept comes from, I do not know.

My copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes in its definition of robot:

"A machine or device that operates automatically or by remote control"

*What kinds of robot innovations do you think we'll see in the near future?

In just the last few months the sport has seen a great many new developments in weaponry and drive systems. Some of the most creative minds on the planet are working to develop a combination of design elements that will send the competition running in panic toward the arena exits. More and more powerful weapons are certainly a trend that will continue. I suspect that we will soon see more on-board electronic "intelligence" to assist in navigation and weapon targeting as well.

Now is a very good time to be involved in the sport. I don't think that it will be too long before the cost of building a competitive 'bot will rise beyond what a father/son team working in their garage can afford. Get involved while you still can! Expect to see more corporate sponsorships and high-dollar teams. I'll be saddened to see that happen -- but I'm looking for a corporate sponsor none the less.

Run Amok Combat Robotics homepage