Building a Battle-Ready Robot
Robotics and engineering go hand-in-hand in some of the coolest things this industry has to offer. Boston Dynamics has a celebrity robotic dog that goes viral on YouTube any time a new video comes out, and robotic cars are the potential future of our daily commute.
But what happens when robots battle?
You may remember BattleBots from the show’s early days on Comedy Central, where some of our beloved Discovery Channel heroes got their start. These days BattleBots has been on ABC, Discovery Channel and the Science Channel, and the robots are only getting more intense.
Contemporary BattleBots robots have to fit inside an 8’ x 8’ square and weigh less than 250 lbs. While an array of other rules exist to keep the battles fair, the 250 lb death machines can be pretty liberal with destruction.
Will Bales is the driver and engineer behind Hypershock, a bot which is known for its vertical spinner and aggressive speed. Bales thrives on the dichotomy between his job as a medical device engineer with Syntheon and building battle-ready robots in his free time. “During the day, I’m a medical device engineer, designing stroke therapy systems, and at night, I’m building death machines,” Bales says.
The Hypershock BattleBots team (L to R): Isaac Lubarsky, Will Bales, Kyle Awner.
What It Takes to Design a BattleBot
Bales’ job as a medical device engineer is a bit of a juxtaposition to his involvement in the world of BattleBots. “Medical device engineering has got a super long lead time, like years, so having BattleBots where the show gets approved and we have to quickly turn around a robot, sometimes in a matter of a few weeks—it’s good to have that dichotomy in my life.”
Bales started in the world of engineering when he was in elementary school when his friend and teammate to this day, Tyler Bond, started building robots together. “We did FIRST LEGO League and other robotics programs in middle school and high school programs,” Bales explains. “We were very hands-on, whether it was cars or robots, we were always tinkering with things.”
“My senior year of high school, we won the high school division of a robotics competition,” he says. “Fast forward a couple years, and I get a call telling me that BattleBots is about to get a deal with ABC and they are going to need robots, fast.”
For one of the high school competitions, Bales and his team built a competition robot in about a week—and won the battle. They’ve kept that swift process going with more BattleBots—and its paid off.
Each BattleBots episode is filmed over a two-week period, but most of the builders are given very little time to prepare a robot once they know the show is happening. This is why many builders will use the same or similar designs year after year.
While builders will make tweaks to their design, unless a robot was a complete failure the season before, teams rarely take to redesigning their BattleBot.
That is, except for Bales and Hypershock.
“We’re always trying to avoid the ‘silver box with wheels’ robot problem,” Bales explains. While they want to be successful in the BattleBots arena, the Hypershock team also want to step outside of the box.
“The idea of Hypershock as a BattleBot is four big wheels, a spinning weapon on the front and very fast. That has held true throughout my tenure on the show, but basically every component has changed over iterations. The only thing that’s been the same over the last three seasons are the tires, that’s it,” Says Bales.
Bales and his team redesign Hypershock year after year. “We’re always trying to keep a similar aesthetic over the years, so that it’s recognizable, but the guts are different every time,” he explains. This may seem counter-intuitive, since the show operates on extremely tight deadlines and when the teams arrive for filming, they just have to work.
HyperShock 1 through 4.
“I think it’s a net positive for us that we redesign Hypershock every year. Redoing it every year has its challenges, but it feels like two steps forward, one step back,” Bales says. “We definitely think we are honing in on the best possible thing we can do. Ultimately, we’re doing the redesign because it’s fun—we enjoy it. It’s a design challenge and a way to express our creativity.”
Over the years, the design effort of Hypershock has had its ebbs and flows. Bales works closely with a graphic designer who does the team’s uniforms, as well as the robot’s aesthetics. Their back-and-forth results in a functional yet TV-ready robot.
For the mechanics of Hypershock, Bales works closely with his childhood friend, Tyler Bond. “He’s also in medical devices, so he and I will run into ways to design or manufacture components or materials that we want to try during our day jobs,” Bales says. “Inevitably, we end up thinking everything that we did the previous year on BattleBots is crap and we need to redesign the whole thing.”
Bales and his team use SOLIDWORKS in both their day jobs and when building Hypershock. “When I was a middle schooler, a mentor came into our robotics club and taught us SOLIDWORKS. We were hooked. It’s been the standard wherever we’ve worked, and it’s just become a part of our workflow for building a BattleBot as well,” Bales says. “It’s especially useful because we’re trying to do things quickly. Whether we need to pull in parts from McMaster or models from gearbox manufacturers or exporting to machine shops for manufacturing, everybody understands the SOLIDWORKS file format.”
HyperShock designs in SOLIDWORKS.
What Makes Designing a BattleBot So Hard?
Arguably, one of the biggest challenges when designing a robot for battle is making sure you have a balance between rigidness and agility.
“The robots have to be both robust and agile, but because we’re masochists, it also has to look cool,” Bales says. “At one extreme, you have robots like Duck, which is made out of machined solid billet. They have these massive, thick pieces of aluminum that are meant to be as durable as possible. But because robots hit so hard, the game of ‘I’m going to make a stiffer robot than you’ doesn’t always work.”
Other robots, like HUGE, have worked to be as agile as possible. A lighter, more agile design allows more effort to be put into the weapon, but also makes the robot more susceptible to attacks.
With Hypershock, Bales works to maintain a balance between rigidity and agility. One of their first iterations of the robot was made out of a carbon fiber assembly.
“We were looking to create something a bit out-of-the-box for destructive robots,” he says. “So, we came up with a carbon fiber, monocoque, stubble spinning weapon with a hydraulic flipping arm—a crazy thing—just because we were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. Just to kind of see what happens and do the coolest thing that we could.”
The team quickly realized that design was too agile and not stiff enough, so now they use a steel sheet metal assembly.
“Last year we put a lot of effort into letting the robot be as stiff and robust as possible, but also being okay with some flexibility and shock mounting all the components we can,” Bales says. In fact, Hypershock has never lost a match due to failing internal components. “All the guts in the robot have worked, so we think that Hypershock has hit this kind of sweet spot between being rigid and being flexible. It’s robust enough to take the hits when we get them, and we’re not wasting weight, space and aesthetic opportunities on rigidity.”
This balance plays into the refined design of Hypershock. Bales and his team have added rigidity over the years, but that means that they need to find places to lose weight. While it might seem like 250 lbs is a lot for a robot, you run out of pounds quickly with weapons and armor.
Bales uses SOLIDWORKS Simulation to find places where they can adjust weight. “On the inside of the robot, we have optimized parts for weight and space, especially in the drive train. If you can take grams (or half an ounce) off of parts, pretty soon you’re up to a pound and another pound, and that gives you room to add armor somewhere or make a gear a little wider,” says Bales. “In some circumstances, that can make or break you in a battle.”
HyperShock’s drive jackshaft assembly in SOLIDWORKS.
A New Definition of Time-to-Market
The company that Bales works for designs medical devices and does research and development.
“It’s funny to see where the overlaps are between designing medical devices and designing a BattleBot,” he says. “My company does research and development, so the thing that we do the best is rapid prototyping, quick iteration and testing or showing off the prototype that we can hopefully sell, and then we do it again.”
Bales explains that at his day job, they have times where they go through two or three generations of a part or assembly design in a single day. “Putting ourselves under the gun and doing things right up until the last minute where things have to work the first time, and in front of an audience on BattleBots, has really helped me in my day job. A live audience and big company CEOs are different, but they both like it when things work the first time.”
Hypershock has often been set apart from other BattleBots because of the team’s design priorities. “When choosing design priorities, we look at what worked and didn’t work for us in previous years, but also what did and didn’t work for other bots,” Bales says. “Also, we look at the trends in weapons and defenses—what’s everybody doing?—to help determine our priorities.”
Tight timelines and a little bit of procrastination has actually helped Hypershock in the BattleBots arena. Because they work until the last minute on their robot, the team often has an opportunity to catch online glimpses of their robot competitors so they can design to battle or find different ways to use the same concepts.
“To be honest, we leverage the fact that everybody else has much better time management skills than we do. Procrastination in engineering can be an advantage,” Bales says.
Whether he’s designing robots to battle each other or designing medical devices, Bales has seen the challenges of balance and timelines in engineering. Surprisingly, he’s seen a lot of crossover between these two very different forms of engineering. “A lot of the connections that we’ve made, resources that we’ve found and the knowledge and skills that we’ve fostered building robots has made us really good at making medical devices really quickly.”
While this year’s BattleBots season has been put on hold due to COVID-19, Bales and the Hypershock team are ready for when the next season fires up.