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GETTING STARTED IN COMBAT ROBOTICS

Step by Step.

 

viper basic combat robot

Demystifying Combat Robotics.

First, congratulations!  You’re interested in combat robots.  It’s a great sport, it’s not as expensive as golf, it helps teach engineering and design, and you get to see a lot of exciting destruction.  We love it!

But if you’re new, you may be wondering how to even get started?  If you don’t know where to look, it can be hard to find the basics in one place.  Not to worry!  We’re here with a basic, step-by-step, evolutionary plan that will start you with the basics but grow your knowledge and skill at every step.

So here you go:   ItGresa’s step-by-step plan for how to get started in combat robotics.

Level 1.  Build a Kit.

Level 2:  Get Good at Driving.

Level 3:  Attend an Event.

Level 4:  Weaponize your bot.

Level 5:  Learn how to Design.

Not everyone will agree with our philosophy and approach. And that’s fine; use our recommendations as a guide for you to figure out what you want to do.

 

LEVEL 1: Build a kit.

If you’re just getting started in combat robotics, it can be confusing. There’s a lot to learn:

  • What are the major parts and systems that make the robot work?
  • How do you drive the robot?
  • Connecting and controlling the bot.
  • Robot power.
  • Assembling the robot.

and much more. As we said, it can be daunting.  When we were first getting started, we hadn’t discovered various groups and resource sites, so I remember looking around at lots of different things, trying to figure it all out.

Kits worked well for us to jump-start our knowledge.  We’re big fans of kits as a way to get started.  You’ll learn quickly how everything fits together, how the electronics work, what are the basic building blocks, and more.  Beginning with a kit makes the entry point much easier, and helps avoid frustration while you’re learning.

Not everyone agrees.  There’s definitely a school of thought in the community that says that you’re better off and will learn more if you design your bot from scratch.  What we found is that there are so many things that need to be figured out, it’s easy to get disheartened or just stuck.  Starting with a kit made everything so much easier and more apparent.  Once we had built our first Viper, we could even talk intelligently on some of the various social media groups and not get shamed for being newbies.

Here are some key recommendations when picking your kit:

WEIGHT CLASS:  We recommend Antweights to get started.  Antweight robots in the US are one pound.  They’re not so small that it’s hard to figure out how to get the bot to work (and still meet the weight limit).  They’re not so large that the weapons are extremely dangerous.  You don’t have to worry about significant power draws with antweights, etc.  Antweights are a great starting point and one of the most common classes of combat bots.

(Wait, what’s a weight class?  The most common are fairyweight: 150g; antweight: 1 lb; and beetleweight: 3 lb.)

VENDOR:  We’re fans of the Fingertech Viper.  These are probably the most common antweight bot,  they’re highly customizable, they’re rugged, and Fingertech is the most often recommended vendor by far.  There’s a reason that we’re a Fingertech vendor!  We’ve had great luck with these bots at meets.  You can find the Viper kit here.

WHAT’S NEEDED:  Every bot needs a few things:

The bot kit itself.  This is a base Viper bot kit.

A transmitter/receiver to control it.  Find those here:

Even though the base Viper comes set up for 9V batteries, we recommend Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries because they are more powerful and, well… more convenient.  This means that you also need a charger.  We recommend the 60W or the 50W.  The 50W also requires a power supply and we carry a charging harness for more versatility when it comes to connector types.

We offer the Viper kit, the 60W charger, the transmitter and receiver, and the lipoly battery as a single bundle so you don’t have to fool around buying pieces one by one.  Just git ‘r done, as we say in Georgia, and get the bundle.  It generally has everything you need to get started and it’s all compatible.

 

LEVEL 2: Get Good at Driving.

If you follow our plan, you’ll most likely end up with what’s called a wedge:  a bot that is angled on one side and flat on the other.   The angle is made to get up under your opponent and either carry them around or flip them over.

Many folks in the robotics community don’t like wedges.  It’s true, wedges don’t produce the dramatic show that weaponized bots do.  But people dislike wedges for another reason:  they can be very successful.  The right kind of wedge can use its pushing power to successfully maneuver other bots into the pit, or to keep pressing the attack until the weaponized bot fails.

If you’re getting started with combat robots, it’s critical to learn to drive and to practice driving.  The controls will be unfamiliar, often even if you are used to RC planes and cars, since the drive is different.

We can’t tell you how many matches we’ve seen won by endurance and good driving.  Often people think that high energy weapons are unbeatable– nothing could be further from the truth.  Weapons can cause a bot to be fragile, as the energy from the weapon gets transferred to the bot itself, instead of the opponent.

So take your wedge and practice.  Set up a course.  Drive the bot forward and backward.  Make lots of turns.  Get to a point where the controls are comfortable in your hand and you can drive your bot without overcontrolling.

Be patient.  Don’t jump into weaponizing right away.  Skill at driving will win many more matches in the long run, and an excellent driver in combination with a powerful weapon can become and unbeatable combo.

Another exercise that’s valuable at this point is to play robot hockey with your new bot.  Find something rectangular that weighs about a pound, mark a target on the ground, and practice pushing or knocking the object into the target with your bot.  A spare Viper chassis works great for that, but you ay not want to spend the money just for a target.  You can just as easily use a block of wood.

 

LEVEL 3: Attend an Event.

The next step of getting started in combat robotics is to attend an event.  You’ve learned what makes a combat robot tick, you’ve gotten good enough to win by advancing your driving skills, and you’re ready to take everything to the next level by attending and competing.

It’s a great experience!   The other builders are almost always helpful.  Not only can you learn a lot of tips, but you know enough at this point to maximize your learning because you’ve got a good set of knowledge already to be able to connect what you learn.

 

Combat Robot Builder preparing his bots at DragonCon
WIll Bales with the Battlebots Giant Nut at DragonCon
Beetleweight combat robot prototype

THINGS TO TAKE:  Make sure you take all of your tools, particularly hex wrenches (for the screws), crescent wrench, soldering iron and solder, spare armor, spare motors, spare wheels, and in general any damageable item and any tool to repair it. Duct tape is also your friend;  locktite and locktite thread locker; and anything else you may need to make last minute repairs. 

If you have skipped to level 4 by now and your bot has a weapon, take a weapon lock.  Vice grips are not an appropriate weapon lock.  Take a bot prop, a platform that will allow your wheels to stay off the ground in case of an inadvertent start to the bot.  A wide roll of tape actually does the job nicely.

 

Make sure you have snacks (if allowed) and warm clothing– often the air conditioning is frigid, particularly in the South.  You can always shed layers easily; shivering is not fun.  One year we had to go to the MomoCon vendor section and buy sweatshirts, we were so cold. 

Those rolling toolboxes are quite nice.  Don’t forget something to hold your bots.  

 

LEVEL 4: WEAPONIZE YOUR BOT.

This is the part of combat robotics that many people find the most exciting. If you’ve ever watched Battlebots, you’ve seen the spectacle of huge masses of moving steel striking each other with terrifying force; blazing robots traveling around the arena; and more.

It’s also the most dangerous. What’s thrilling on the television screen can be dangerous to yourself and others in real life.

In this article about the combat bot Crippling Depression, Sparkfun and Robert Cowan talk about the forces that are involved.  Units of energy in this context are measured in Joules.  A good rule of thumb is that combat bots, with an optimal weapon, generate about 150 Joules per pound.

Check out this table:

Bot Class Weight Joules Equivalency
Antweight 1 lb 150 Bowling ball falling from 3M
Beetleweight 3 lb 300 Flying football (US) tackle
Hobbyweight 12 lb 1200 Colt 45
Featherweight 30 lb 8000 Two shotgun blasts
Battlebot 250 lb 100 kilojoules Head on car crash

So safety has to be a serious consideration.  Although it may be tempting, you should only test your bot inside an enclosure designed to protect you from harm.  An enclosure can be any kind of basic box that allows the bot to move.  We recommend the sides to be at least 3/4″ wood or 1/4″ polycarbonate.

  • Simple Arena design here.
  • Ryan Clingman’s easy to build test box here.

A NOTE ON THE CLEAR SURFACES: Most people in the sport recommend polycarbonate for any clear sides. Polycarbonate goes by a number of brand names, Lexan is one of them. POLYCARBONATE IS NOT PLEXIGLASS! There is a belief in the sport that plexiglass is too brittle to make an effective side or top.

 

IN CASE YOU THINK WE'RE KIDDING, WATCH THIS SAFETY VIDEO COURTESY OF FINGERTECH and Team 'SPLODE Robotics.

Find Team ‘Splode here.

There are several types of weapons, and we offer many:

Picking a weapon is up to the preference of the builder. Much is personal opinion and design philosophy for a particular bot, but there’s a lot of physics involved. See a great Wired article on the topic here.

Drive motors are generally brushed, whereas weapon motors are generally brushless.  This means that you need to have a different Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) for the weapon and the wheels.

 

LEVEL 5: LEARN HOW TO DESIGN.

To be able to start to develop your own custom bot with your own chassis, you have to get to a point where you can start  to design.  Any 3D printer, any outsourced weapons manufacturer, in general any kind of custom part, requires the ability to create a design and translate that design into a machine file.

It’s not an absolute requirement.  The first step of creating your own design can be fabricating chassis and parts from digital files that you find on thingiverse.com and other 3D design sites.

Examples include:

However, if you are going to go with a full-on homemade design, you need more than a 3-D printer.  You need a CAD program.  CAD means computer-aided-design, and CAD programs are the software programs that allow you to create digital shapes which can be turned into 3D parts.

We like Fusion360.  You can get the hobbyist version here for free.  While it may be a little bit steeper learning curve than something simpler like TinkerCAD, Fusion360 has capabilities sufficient for most users, is upgradable for a fee, is well know in industry, and offers good support for most applications.  Both TinkerCAD and Fusion360 are Autodesk products.  Autodesk is a leader in the field, so if you choose one of these products, it’s unlikely you will be left high and dry in the future.

Don’t take our word for it, though.  Google around.  See what makes sense for you, and pick that product.

RESOURCES NEEDED:  Generally to produce your own designs, you’ll need a 3D printer;  a durable filament like NylonX, NylonG, or Taulman  Bridge Nylon.  These filaments are harder to print and to manage, but will yield a much tougher bot.  You’ll also need a series of tools, such as basic hand tools.  I’ve put some of my favorites in the sidebar to the left, if you’re reading this on a laptop or desktop.

 

IN CONCLUSION:

Getting started with Robot Combat takes a little bit of interest, some mechanical ability, and a willingness to learn and practice. In return, it pays back with fun, knowledge, and satisfaction. For kids, it’s a great way for you and your children to participate in something that will help their interest in fields that will provide them with good paying jobs and valuable skills.

SAFETY NOTE: All weaponized combat bots should only be assembled and run under an adult’s supervision.
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