Perched on a balcony of the Javits Center, where New York Comic Con was held over the weekend, a 15-foot-tall, seven-ton steel behemoth greeted costumed attendees as they rode up the escalator.
Two engineers scaled the support structure and disappeared into the copper-coloured body. The pilot closed a front-facing gate and took hold of the joysticks. The Megazord-like structure rumbled to life and its right arm, its only arm, swung to take aim at the crowd. It seemed angry; the crowd was loving it.
This is MegaBot, the first of its kind. Its creators are three engineers on a mission to usher in the next generation of major sports leagues: Robot SmackDowns. Co-founders Andrew Stroup, Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein envision a serialized, possibly televised competition in which these colossal bots fight to the death.
“Is this the evolution of WWE, UFC, and NASCAR? Giant, fighting robots?” Stroup asks, seriously. “We think so.”
“Pacific Rim” Come To Life
Stroup, an aerospace and mechanical engineer by way of the Department of Defence, and Cavalcanti, a mechanical engineer and founder of Artisan’s Asylum, met in 2012 as competitors on Discovery Channel’s elimination-style engineering competition show “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.” Their mutual love of robotics led them to continue designing and prototyping parts long after the show aired.
“We’ve been primed for this our entire lives,” Cavalcanti says. The idea for the league grew out of their lifelong obsession with robotics and video games; they grew up with one foot in reality and the other in the futuristic war zones of MechWarrior and StarCraft. After completing a year’s worth of research and development, they recruited Oehrlein, a control theory engineer with a legendary reputation in the hacker-makerspace community, and quit their jobs to make MegaBots a reality.
Stroup, Cavalcanti, and Oerhlein secured starter funds from an unnamed angel investor — one who “raised a hand in the crowd” because he believed in their ambition — and began construction in Artisan’s Asylum four months ago. It’s a nonprofit design and manufacturing shared space in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Each co-founder contributes a unique skill set: Cavalcanti uses physics and engineering principles to turn concept art into steel, Stroup welds and develops the fluid power systems, and Oehrlein designs software for the control systems, or “the brains of the robot.” And with the help of about 10 other developers, they have completed the first MegaBot’s fully functioning torso, cockpit, arm, and two main weapons systems.
How The League Works
The team hopes one day fans will root for bots the way they do for racing’s Jeff Gordon, ultimate fighting’s Ronda Rousey, and boxing’s Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
“With NASCAR, the UFC, and WWE, there’s a platform on which they operate,” Stroup says. Race car drivers compete on tracks across the country, while boxers sell out arenas. These events are streamed on television or Pay-Per-View. Networks strike deals with the leagues for the rights to play their content exclusively. They’re money-making machines.
Competitors create brands within those leagues, moving from city to city and carrying that brand recognition. “The masses attach to them,” Stroup explains. The more exposure competitors have, the more the audience becomes engaged and interested in the overall league.
MegaBots, Inc. plans to copy that model. Assuming it raises enough money to build a fleet, its plan is to take the bots on the road. They will tour the country, face off in epic battles against other MegaBots, and build a fan base. Stroup says (without giving specifics) networks have reached out and will closely watch how MegaBot, Inc.’s upcoming Kickstarter campaign performs. The possibilities for distribution seem endless, though the team is tight-lipped about the exact direction it’s headed.
“These Aren’t Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”
In existing robot battles, the player controls his or her droid using a glorified remote control from the other side of the room. The sense of imminent danger is lost.
In a MegaBots battle, a two-member team sits inside the bot’s upper torso, where the controls systems are housed. Although the co-founders assure me that the pilot and gunner are well protected inside, the situation presents a heightened suspense.
Each 15,000-pound robot is equipped with six-inch cannons inside its arms that fire paint-filled missiles and cannon balls at 120 miles per hour. Good aim can cause enough damage to jam its opponent’s weapons system or shoot of a limb. “These aren’t Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” Stroup laughs.
The-counders haven’t yet determined the fight rules (or at least aren’t sharing them). But when standing in the shadow of the 15-foot-tall steel beast at New York Comic Con, it’s hard to imagine it will be anything other than entertaining to watch.
What Comes Next For MegaBots
MegaBots presents a chance to close the gap between technology and sports, inspire a new generation’s love of robotics, and create an entirely new revenue stream. The co-founders estimate that MegaBots could match annual revenues of existing, comparable sports leagues, between ticketing, cable network deals, sponsorships, and merchandise. For reference, the WWE is valued at $US1 billion; the UFC, $US1.65 billion; and the International Speedway Corporation (which derives approximately 90% of its revenues from NASCAR), $US1.35 billion.
Getting there won’t be easy.
While an angel investor has taken the team this far, MegaBots is enlisting the help of sports and robotics fans to carry them the rest of the way. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign later this month with the goal of raising a seven-figure sum. It’s a hefty price, but not totally unexpected. “We’re not building iRobots,” Stroup says. “There’s seven tons of steel in these bots.”
The number of MegaBots created in the next year is directly correlated to how much money the team raises. If the Kickstarter campaign meets its goal, they hope cable networks will interpret it as an indication of the public’s interest in the sport. More “talks” of a TV show or special may follow.
And when I ask who will comprise the teams that man the bots, Stroup offers a tease: “There will be interesting incentives for Kickstarter engagement.”
We’ll update this page with a link to the Kickstarter campaign when it launches in October.
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