BLUEFIELD (AP) — He looked around the cluttered workshop. “Oh…where did I put that brain?” After a few moments, Richard Holt Jr. found a box about the size of a clock radio. It was only part of a battle robot currently being built at Bluefield State College.
Holt and fellow student Sam Moye watch sales, trash bins and other sources for the parts needed in battle robots such as the big “Killahurtz,” the smaller “Hank the Tank,” and the appropriately-named “Frankenstein.” The robots won’t be armed with missiles or laser weapons; instead, the builders are considering things like sledgehammers or spikes. A flamethrower would be nice, too, but that won’t be happening.
And instead of fighting people, the robots will enter the arena to battle the creations of other robot enthusiasts.
The robotics laboratory in Dickason Hall has robots in various stages of construction and of various sizes. Moye picked up one, “Explorer Bot” that resembles the title character in the animated movie “WALL-E.” He switched it on and set it on the floor. Its sensors — mounted on a stalk — swiveled as it sought obstacles. Bumpers on the front touch and detect objects the other sensors don’t see.
Robots may seem like toys to some people, but to the BSC students, they are serious learning experiences that are fun, too. Both Holt and Moye are majors in electrical engineering, and both are building the battle robots as their senior project. When the robots are finished, their creators hope to compete in college tournaments.
Like the trainers of boxers or wrestlers, they have to worry about the bulk of their champions. Robot fighting has its weight limits, too. The biggest BSC battle robot — Killahurtz — will weigh more than most people.
“Two hundred and twenty pounds is the limit at the professional level,” Moye said.
“And this is actually going to be too heavy for any tournament,” Holt added. “So this is just Sam’s play toy.”
How much will Killahurtz ultimately weigh?
“Probably close to 350 pounds,” Moye said. This is why tournament weight limits are important. “You can’t have a 90-pound robot pushing against a 200-pound robot.”
In contrast to Killahurtz, Holt hopes to make Hank the Tank, named after his grandfather, put on some weight. He pointed out the round, wooden frame with a battery, electronics and tires.
“This one is already about 60 pounds,” he said. “I hope to put metal on it, and I hope it will be about 90 pounds.”
The creators are still working out just what sort of weapons they want on their robots.
“We really haven’t made a decision,” Holt said. “We’re talking about it.”
“Flamethrowers,” Moye speculated.
“Axes. A motorized ax,” Holt added.
“Yea,” Moye said. “Something where it could just raise up and drop.”
“It’s like a tomahawk,” Holt said.
“It could use linear actuators and have more of a spike,” Moye said.
Spiked hammers and axes are not the only armaments being considered.
“A sideways bulldozer with scissor-cutting action,” Holt said. “And probably the most fun thing we’ve talked about doing are two sledgehammers that come together in the center. Those would be kind of hard to balance, I believe.”
Designing and assembling the robots provides a lot of learning experiences, the students said.
“You learn great team skills,” Moye said.
“You learn a lot of electrical sense,” Holt picked up the robot brain. “I learned a lot while making this, the Hank the Tank’s brain. I actually learned to make what they call an H bridge; that’s actually telling it to go forward or reverse. And I learned a whole programming language in a semester, so you learn a lot of computer skills. Another thing you learn is how much something can take, like stresses and strengths.”
The students’ advisor, Professor Bob Riggins, arrived in the lab.
“He’s the doctor in charge of everything. He’s the mad scientist,” Holt said.
“Mad scientist in charge of mad students,” Riggins added with a smile.
Robot parts can be found in many places. Items such as wire and machine parts are found in dumpsters and junk yards. Other parts like motorized wheelchair bases have been donated, and more are welcome. Some stores have sold parts at cost.
Holt picked up a motor attached to a circular saw blade — like a flamethrower, it won’t arm a robot due to safety reasons — but the motor itself is surprisingly strong, Riggins said. It was a car window motor.
“It’s surprising how much torque these have. We used to turn the wheels on a 400 pound robot with one of these,” Riggins said.
Like other mad scientists, robot builders are always looking for more parts.
“We actually use a lot of wheelchair bases,” Holt said. He pointed out robots in various stages of construction. “This has a wheelchair motor, that has a wheelchair motor. We’re actually looking for another one like this.”
“If anybody has anything like an old scooter or anything automated, we take in anything,” Riggins said. “It’s unbelievable what people throw away.”
Besides building battle robots, BSC students also construct robots that have participated in international competitions such as the Intelligent Ground Vehicle contest held each summer. Some prize money won during these contests has helped the robot program afford some more expensive parts that are not readily available.
“We actually won first place about four years ago, which is outstanding,” Riggins recalled. “What really got us going was an Air Force contract about seven years ago. They wanted us to build an autonomous robot that could sniff out bio-terror agents.”
As the students tinkered with their creations, a little boy visiting the lab watched eagerly as the little Explorer Bot went through its paces and perhaps dreamed of the day his own creations would roll or even walk across the floor.