Engineer Builds a 2-Story, 3,000kg, Mechanical Racing Robot
We’re all aware of the growing robotics boom throughout most industries. Robots are everywhere these days, and they will only become more prevalent. One of the biggest challenges with robotics is how they interact with humans. Robots can’t think for themselves, so we rely on programming and anti-collision algorithms to guarantee our safety among the machines.
Jonathan Tippett has taken to robotic-human interaction in a different way. He has built a full-scale sports mechanical robot, or as it is known in this fringe of robotics, a sports mech.
Two stories tall and weighing 3,000 kg, think of it as the power-loader from Alien playing rugby and demolition derby at the same time.
“My inspiration came from growing up mountain biking, snowboarding, riding motorcycles and practicing Capoeira, an acrobatic non-contact martial art,” Tippett explains. “All of these things required a special blend of practice, training and focus, and they all had a certain degree of consequence if you fail. That combination of skill, practice and consequence leads to some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Combined with a childhood love of dinosaurs, dune buggies and excavators forged in the crucible of Burning Man, the result was a giant human-piloted exoskeleton, purpose-built for off-road racing: the sports mech.”
Tippett gained the confidence to start the task of building his mechanical robot by building a giant mechanical spider in 2006 with a group of madcap engineers. The Mondo Spider, as it was dubbed, went on to become one of the show pieces for an educational charity that Tippett helped form, known as the eatART Foundation. The foundation looks to foster a community and “pooled the skills and resources of like-minded creatives around a mandate to support the production of large-scale, technically sophisticated artworks with a clean energy educational theme.”
Tippett was able to incubate his mech technology for almost a decade at the eatART laboratory before joining forces with Furrion, “which gave us the resources to build the full-scale machine,” he says.
How Do You Start Designing a Mech?
At around the age of 10, Tippett found himself playing with 1/10th scale electric radio-controlled off-road race cars. He credits that interest with leading him down the path of getting a mechanical engineering degree from the University of British Columbia in 1999.
His vision of developing a sports mech—version one is known as Prosthesis—started where all crazy ideas begin: with imagination.
“I had a vision for the experience I wanted as a pilot. Then I did hand sketches for more than a year, followed by about four years of CAD, calculations and FEA. This was complemented by years of building (and breaking) things with my own two hands to temper the theory,” Tippett said.
The biggest challenges of building a real-life mech are pretty obvious: time, money and space.
“These are common challenges in any ambitious project with a business model that seems too distant for most to imagine. The fact that it was giant made all three of those challenges accordingly larger,” he said.
At the end of the day, the biggest challenge was that nobody had done this before, Tippett explained. “There was no ‘mech design’ section in the Machinery’s Handbook. It took a lot of imagination and trial and error, especially to achieve the smooth parity between pilot and mech.”
There was a struggle to find the right balance between amplifying the movement of the pilot and making the machine too sensitive. Obviously, you don’t want your mech to take an unexpected leap because you moved the controls a bit too far.
“If you get it wrong you can create a ‘kinematic feedback loop’—a.k.a ‘the rag-doll effect’ where the movement of the mech jiggles the pilot, causing them to generate unwanted inputs in the exo-frame…and around you go,” Tippett explained. “In the worst case, you have a 200 HP bucking bronco on your hands, and things can actually become quite violent.”
From start to finish, Tippett and his team have used SOLIDWORKS to create their Exo-Bionic technology and Prosthesis. Through integrating off-road racing components with industrial motion control, he has created a human-piloted machine that is surprisingly agile.
His team has put every feature of their CAD system to the test. “Mechanical design, motion simulation and FEA, generating solids to export to our custom CNC tubing cutter, DXF’s for water jetting, rendering for marketing and promotion. The works,” he said.
“The CAD workstations have been pretty quiet since we moved to testing and pilot training, but we’ll get to work on Mech 2.0 soon enough and we’ll be blowing the dust off them then,” Tippett added.
Driving a Mech is Different Than You Think
Tippett’s Prosthesis sports mech has been in development for quite some time. In fact, Tippett made waves back in 2014 at SOLIDWORKS World when he showed off the control system of what would become his sports mech.
This type of control system has some interesting advantages. “The main advantage is that it’s totally awesome,” Tippett said. “Joking aside, the human control aspect is central to the whole purpose of the project. The purpose of the project was always to create a challenging and rewarding physical and mental exercise for the pilot—a.k.a., a sport. It also vastly simplifies the design and development. Most of the ‘coding’ is done in the pilot’s brain.”
In terms of mech driving as a sport, the team has been referring to this “coding” process as training. Tippett and his team are in the process of working with several athletes to train them to drive a mech.
“Now that we have the baseline mech technology with Prosthesis, we need to create the sport. Team Canada National Champion Skeleton racer, Cassie Hawrysh was the first of many world-class athletes we have lined up to help.”
There are three main goals for training and learning with athletes for this sport:
- Learn what skills or strengths lend themselves to being a good mech pilot.
- Learn how to teach and learn mech piloting.
- Explore what mech sports will look like.
“As the athletes and fans generate interest in the sport, Furrion Exo-Bionics will continue to advance mech technology, enabling the pilots to push themselves further,” Tippett says. “The more interest and excitement we can generate with our pilot training program, the sooner we can begin building Mech 2.0.”
Tippett and his team plan to make the next generation Prosthesis two-thirds the size and half the weight, but maintaining the same power.
Where Is This All Heading?
Tippett and Furrion Exo-Bionics are launching a Kickstarter campaign to launch into the next phase of this project, which involves developing this mech system into a sport.
“With the technology fundamentally validated by Prosthesis, it’s time to bring in the humans. It is the innate spirit of human competition that will breathe life into the technology we’ve created,” Tippett said.
Tippett and his team are looking to use feedback from the test pilot athletes to find out what this sport has the potential to be, as well as shine some light on the technology. “We want to bring the technology out from the shadows of the lab and into the world where it can do what it was supposed to do—create an exciting new experience for humans,” he explained.
The Furrion website describes the significance of the scale of this project, stating, “…our exo-bionic mechs serve as a unique platform for the development of multiple branches of technology. In addition to large scale human-in-the-loop motion controls, they are also an evolutionary leap towards a future powered by mobile electric power systems.”
The Kickstarter will raise funding to both fuel mech research and development, as well as help training and testing with professional athletes who can lend their expertise to the evolution of the sport.