Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

The popularity of automaton jousts is on the rise

Robotics enthusiasts from around the world are converging on Fort Mason to beat the crankcase oil out of each other.

Founded two years ago as the brainchild of Marin County resident Marc Thorpe, the cyber-era jousting tournament known as Robot Wars has grown into an internationally recognized event. For this year's third annual show, teams have entered from as far away as England and France.

From Friday, Aug. 16, through Sunday the 18th, radio-controlled robots in four weight classes (5 to 165 pounds) will do whatever it takes to pin, disable, or simply bludgeon their opponents into submission. Projectiles, flames, radio jamming, and substances that would require cleanup are prohibited; almost anything else goes.

Contestants antagonize each other with a startling array of sledgehammers, saw-toothed crab claws, and gas-powered chain saws on wheels. The human designers behind the machines include sculptors, helicopter pilots, and special-effects pros from major motion picture companies. The names of their robots sound like those of medieval prison guards and man-made disasters-in-waiting: "Thor," "The Master," "The Mulcher," "Blendo," "Biohazard."

"This thing's gonna be a bitch on wheels," says Kua Patten, an exhibit support technician at the Exploratorium and crew chief for "Frank," a hammer-wielding apparatus on rollers named for museum founder Frank Oppenheimer.

Thorpe, the former chief model-maker at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and now the full-time president and co-owner of Robot Wars, says the event's theater of combat has an irresistible appeal. "Why do kids practice for hours on end after school and on weekends for football or basketball, for no money?" he asks. "The simple answer is that it's fun, but that's not really it. It's the drama, the intoxication and exhilaration, of performing in front of a live audience. That's available to actors and musicians, but it's never been available in a mainstream fashion to engineers."

A lifelong sports fan and a veteran performance artist, Thorpe conceived of Robot Wars a few years ago while working on a radio-controlled vacuum. "It wasn't very effective," he laughs. "It was like cleaning your whole house with a Dustbuster."

The project got him to thinking, however, that a less domestic, more dangerous invention would be the ultimate "boys' toy." "So I went to my entrepreneurial impulse and decided to stage an event," he says.

With the help of an early article in Wired magazine, the first Robot Wars was an unqualified success. From 18 competitors in 1994, the field jumped to about 50 last year, with prize money reaching $5,000. This year, Thorpe expects to host 75 or more robotics teams and at least as many as last year's 1,000 spectators. Added incentive for sci-fi nerds will be the participation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, who will serve as a judge.

The team behind last year's surprise winner, "La Machine," came up with a simple, homely wedge design that was almost laughed out of Fort Mason -- until it stormed to the middleweight-class title. Before the weekend was over, La Machine had added the heavyweight crown and the "melee" round to its spoils.

Basking in victory, the team -- three cousins who run a San Francisco-based Web page design company called Impact Media Group -- made a video for David Letterman's producers, hoping to land an appearance on Late Night. They drove their scaled-down tank through a Bay Bridge tollbooth; they took it to London, where they were detained for disturbing the guards at Buckingham Palace. In Manhattan, they threatened to challenge a taxicab to a face-off.

The weaponless La Machine's sole objective is to incapacitate opponents by flipping them over or pinning them in a corner. One of the secrets to its success has been the distinct roles of the three partners -- designer Gage Cauchois, driver Trey Roski, and "team captain" Greg Munson -- which free Roski to drive with abandon. Partner Munson says that excessive pride of ownership sometimes makes other competitors hold back: " 'Builders' syndrome,' we call it. You feel bad if your machine breaks." Licensed helicopter pilot Roski agrees: "It's like mopping the kitchen -- if you didn't mop it, it doesn't matter if you have muddy feet."

Over at the Exploratorium, the museum-sponsored team -- Patten and his boss, who goes by the single name Curtis -- say their machine is also designed for fearlessness. "It's a dreadnought," Curtis says.

On a recent Sunday, Frank lay in pieces on the floor of the Exploratorium's machine shop. Neither team member seemed concerned, however: "Last year, we got it running two hours before the games began," says Patten, the overall-clad exhibit technician with a master's degree in sculpture.

Patten says tinkering with Frank provides a healthy release for the inevitable frustrations of working with the public. The Exploratorium exhibits he designs "have to hold up to a lot of human interaction. It's nice to build one that bites back," he says with a grin.

If there's one common denominator among participants, 49-year-old Robot Wars founder Thorpe describes it succinctly: "I've never lost interest in toys," he says.

Still, he's hoping he can parlay that interest into a professional success. Having taken out a trademark on his event name, Thorpe plans to market the idea around the country. Already, a series of events have been held in Germany, and the BBC recently filmed a pilot in England for a proposed Robot Wars TV show.

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