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Robot Wars: Violence in the name of science

Robot melee in progress August 26, 1997
Web posted at: 9:48 p.m. EDT (0148 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- They stalk the ring with a steely glare. The combatants, with names like Biohazard, Blendo, Painful Wedgie and Killborg, have no pity. There are many rules, but only one matters in this cage match -- kill or be killed.

Ultimate fighting? No. This is Robot Wars, an annual destination for people who enjoy the dual pastimes of building things and smashing things. The latest battle took place in San Francisco earlier this month.

It's "kill or be killed" in robot wars
video icon 697K/16 sec. QuickTime movie

The battlefield: a 30 foot by 54 foot plywood arena with a smooth asphalt floor. An eight-foot-high wall of bulletproof glass shields spectators from flying shrapnel.

The contestants: 100 machines, built by engineers, students and tinkerers from around the world.

The objective: to score a "knockout" by immobilizing the enemy -- by flipping, throwing, lifting or smashing it. If both robots are still mobile when the five minute limit is up, the judges select a winner based on the control and style of the robots and the amount of damage inflicted.

Robot wars competitor

The events: The "face-off," an elimination tournament of one-on-one bouts, and the "melee," a free-for-all between all the robots in each weight class until only one is left.

The combatants come in all different shapes and sizes. They are divided into four weight classes, from 10 to 175 pounds. They come armed with spikes, saw blades and all manner of gripping, flipping and ripping implements of destruction.

"It's got some nice little spikes. It's got a skull to scare the other robots," says one contestant, beaming with pride.

"We're gonna attempt to do some hacking with the front blade and some cutting with the rotating top blade," says the owner of "Sabotage," a sort of deranged upside-down lawnmower.

So what is the point of this mechanized metallic mayhem? The answers are as varied as the competitors.

"Mostly fun," says one.

The robot named

Another contestant vents his frustration with machines: "You always get mad at your VCR, you always get mad at your toaster, you always get mad at your dishwasher, but you can't do anything about it. At Robot Wars, part of the destructive energy comes from that frustration of dealing with these everyday household items."

Robot Wars founder Marc Thorpe, formerly one of the special effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, thinks the event has an appeal beyond the violence.

"RW is so popular because of its unique mix of art, technology, sport and theater in a way that explores and celebrates basic life issues of survival and destruction without compromising human values -- a rare combo in this age of dehumanization and political correctness," Thorpe says in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the Robot Wars Web site.

Robot Wars' rules are fairly complex, to ensure both the safety and entertainment value of the fights. The rules also encourage creativity.

Legged robots are allowed to be heavier than their opponents -- the walkers can weigh up to 300 pounds, compared to 175 for other robots. They're allowed to compete with the lighter robots as an incentive to inventors.

There's even an event for autonomous robots, machines that battle without input from their owners.

Thorpe, on his Web site, expresses high hopes for the future of Robot Wars, looking forward to the day "when you begin to see the budgets of engineering programs at colleges and universities favorably compare to athletic programs as a result of the popularity of Robot Wars."

In addition to the annual San Francisco Robot Wars contest, other events are being planned, including a competition in London set for November.

Correspondent Donna Kelley contributed to this report.


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