Originally published May 13, 2015
Battlebots proved to be a hit when it aired on ABC, and is now in its third season. And, in the wake of Battlebots, the BBC brought back Robot Wars. Let’s just say it’s a good time to be a combat robotics fan.
IT’S OFFICIAL: BATTLEBOTS is returning to television this summer on ABC, with the first of six episodes starting on Sunday, June 21st.
I have mixed feelings about this. I am a fan of combat robotics, and my wife and I loved Robot Wars — a British show that ran for seven seasons — enough that when we honeymooned in England, we arranged to spend a day in Nottingham with John Findlay, the man who currently owns the license for Robot Wars (sadly, the timing of our trip was such that the only way we could have caught a live show would have been to parachute out of the plane on the way into the country). We’ve seen the new house bots close up, along with some of the combat robots from the TV show, and we even have a picture of my wife with Matilda (her favourite house robot). And, we came home with a pair of little flipper bots called “Battle Antz,” which have given us great joy.
But while Robot Wars grabbed me and turned me into a lifetime fan, Battlebots never really did. I’m not alone in that, either — Robot Wars was an international success with hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, and at least two or three spin-offs, while Battlebots garnered tens of thousands of viewers in North America and had no spin-offs.
I think most of that had to do with the presentation. Battlebots presented itself as a sort of trashy rodeo, with corporate-sponsored robots and their teams as the cowboys. The announcers treated it like a boxing match, which just came across as tacky. By the end of the show’s run, Carmen Electra seemed to be at least as important as the roboteers.
On the other hand, Robot Wars had no corporate sponsorships, although it did have roboteers who seemed like amazing, supportive hobbyists, all of whom were mainly in it for the fun — and, from my albeit limited experience with that community, that’s exactly how it is in real life. The show put the roboteers front and centre, with enthusiastic hosts and commentators who were clearly at least as thrilled to be there as the contestants, if not more. Also, in taking on a game show format, Robot Wars managed to come across as a more coherent tournament than Battlebots.
It was also an incredibly important show. In a previous installment, I mentioned Interstellar, and the problem of getting people into science and technology (aka STEM). I’ve seen a lot of ideas thrown around regarding how to solve it, but one idea in particular always seemed conspicuously absent: make it fun.
Combat robotics is fun.
Robot Wars had a powerful message: if those roboteers having a blast on screen could build their robots in their spare time, so could you. This season, you might be watching them, but, with a bit of time and effort, next season you could join them. Want a “gateway drug” to STEM? I challenge you to find a better one.
It’s a pity that in the world of amateur robotics, and particularly the robotics presented to students, this is often a controversial approach. One of the major student robotics programs, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), was founded as a direct reaction against robot combat. But, while there are no shortage of people who would turn their nose up at the idea of robots bashing each other, the fact remains that there is a visceral thrill to it that simply cannot exist when robots are following drawn lines, or putting pool noodles into boxes.
So, the revival of Battlebots leaves me cautiously optimistic. The press reports thus far talk about it focusing on the roboteers and the design process, which is a huge step in the right direction. In a number of ways, it looks like the new show will be taking a lot of cues from its more successful British cousin.
I want the new Battlebots to be inspiring. I want it to be exciting. I want it to carry that same wonderful message that anybody can become a roboteer, if they just set their minds to it. I want it to be another Robot Wars.
And who knows? I may even get my wish — stranger things have happened. I do know one thing, though: when it airs, my wife and I will be watching. After all, it’s been a dozen years since this sort of combat robotics has been on television. A glorious return is long overdue.