Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Love Letter to 'Robot Wars,' the Best Show on British TV

The following contains spoilers for series 8 of Robot Wars, including the final result.

Robot Wars, the best show on British television, had its season finale over the weekend, with flipper-bot Apollo storming to the final and ultimately beating formidable death-spinner Carbide in a tense fight that ended up going to a judge’s decision.

For those who haven’t seen the show, the premise is simple: Get people to build weaponised robots and then battle them until one is pushed into a pit, flipped out of the arena, immobilised or, in the battle isn't finished before time expires, declared the victor by a panel of roboticist judges. The series was first broadcast in the late 90s and came back this year after a hiatus of over a decade. And oh, what a few years can mean for battling robots. The robots this year were formidable, and it made for damn good telly.

Apollo’s ultimate victory was well deserved, if surprising. Most had money on Carbide, a 110 kg robot with an 85 cm spinning bar and military-grade steel armour, which was a favourite to win pretty much from the moment of its first appearance in the new series; the hum of its spinning blade (apparently capable of an impact at 60 times the energy of a sniper bullet) made its opponents go weak at the wheels as it proved its ability to slice up and immobilise almost any robot in its path, and even destroy part of the steel-walled arena.

Apollo (in white) flips Carbide (with yellow wheels) in the season final. Image: Robot Wars wiki

The sheer power of the robots is testament to what made series 8 of Robot Wars so good. Sure, the show owes a lot to nostalgia for its previous years, but from the beginning it was clear that times have changed. Robotics have advanced enough that these robots are genuinely dangerous, and the best one from the past (Hypno-Disc, naturally) wouldn’t stand a chance in the new arena. The first official rule for series 8 builders reads, “All participants build and operate Robots at their own risk. Robot Wars is inherently dangerous.” They’re not lying.

When we spoke to head judge Noel Sharkey last week, he put the uptick in robot ability down to advances in battery tech and materials. (In case you were wondering how dangerous these robots really are, he also related a tale in which a technician had his leg impaled on the end of a robot’s spike weapon, resulting in the enduring rule that requires every robot to have a removable “link”—a kind of kill switch that cuts power to the machine and is the bane of many a roboteer if it falls out mid-battle.)

Despite its unbeatable aggression and fearsome weapon, Carbide didn’t end up taking the Robot Wars trophy, because of another enduring feature of Robot Wars that makes even potentially predictable fights hard to call: Every bot has its weakness. You can have the baddest bot, but if it gets bashed in the wrong way, it’s a hunk of junk. It’s not entirely clear what happened to Carbide, but pretty early in its final death match against Apollo, its spinning blade just… stopped. When your robot’s basically just a weapon on wheels, a breakdown in the weapon motor reveals a bit of a massive Achilles heel.

Carbide in an earlier battle with functioning weapon.

And so we got our winners, the likeable lads of Apollo, who impressed in earlier rounds by flipping over even the house robots, which weigh three times the maximum weight of competitors, at over 300kg. Flippers are generally pretty lame weapons—watching two robots try to flip each other over without causing any real damage is a snorefest of a fight—but Apollo proved they’re effective when used properly (take note, Foxic).

Sharkey told us the judges have been known to take up to two hours to make a decision, but Apollo’s win was easily justified and it was impossible not to share in the team’s celebrations. As Sharkey put it, “Robot Wars is really about human struggle and triumph.”

We laughed with Team Nuts and their out-of-control robotic flail; we cried with Team Chompalot when its dragon-inspired bot was forced to retire after a battery fire; and we stood proud with unflappable Thor controller Jason, the lone operator who got through to the final on a wild card—and frankly did well just to keep his robot running.

When so often robots in the real world seem to fall, fail, and generally not live up to expectations, Robot Wars is a testimony to the ability of hobbyists to deliver bots fit for death-battling purpose. Bring on season 9.

from A Love Letter to 'Robot Wars,' the Best Show on British TV

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