Impressive tech, hardcore geeks power Syfy's giant battle robots

Geek alert: A new Syfy robot combat show, Robot Combat League, pits twelve futuristic Real Steel-style robots against each other in head-to-head fights.

These duels between giant robots not only feature enough action and explosions to make any pyromaniac happy, but also demonstrate impressive advancements in robotics technology.

Photo: By Michael Homnick, TechHive
Robotics expert Mark Setrakian, standing in front of a prototype robot similar to those featured on Syfy's Robot Combat League.

The robots, masterminded by robotics and Hollywood creature effects guru Mark Setrakian, feature diverse attributes and appearances that make each tournament-style battle unique.

Takes two to make a giant robot work

These 8-feet-tall fighting machines may not immediately succeed at world domination, however, as it takes a team of two to operate each robot. One technician controls the lower half, and one “jockey” is in charge of the upper half.

Paulo Younse, a NASA robotics engineer who helped build the Mars Rover Curiosity, handled technician duties for one of the robots as a contestant on the show, with teammate and National Guard helicopter pilot Jeffrey Fellin serving as jockey.

Younse and Fellin, along with 11 other two-person teams as diverse as their own robot fighters, make up the competition in Robot Combat League.

“I never expected to see robots this capable and powerful,” said Younse, who had no prior experience battling robots.

“Actually battling these things was definitely an adrenaline rush compared to working in the lab,” he said

Their robot, Commander, is a heavily armored, green monstrosity that bears little resemblance to the space exploration robots Younse is familiar with. 

New tech drives the robots

One example of the new tech put to use in the show is the intriguing method developed by Setrakian for controlling the robots.

Melaka Planetarium
Paulo Younse with a milder robot not competing in the Syfy show

Though the robot technicians use a more traditional joystick system to operate the robots’ lower halves, jockeys wear a harness contraption on their shoulders and arms that directly transmits their punches and jabs to their mechanical fighter.

This essentially turns the gigantic machines into powerful, fighting puppets that precisely emulate their controllers’ commands.

The harness system actually seems to give athletes with little knowledge of robotics just as much clout in the competition as seasoned robotics engineers, though it remains to be seen if contestants like professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter Ander Montanez or former Olympic hurdler Bayano Kamani will see success.

The top half, lower half method for controlling the robots also adds an extra layer of teamwork to the strategy, something Younse said took some getting used to.

“That was one of the new things that was very different than what we do at NASA, where we just program in commands and the robot executes them,” he said.

Experience not a guarantee of success

Despite his engineering background, Younse said robotics experience had little to do with success in the competition because so much of the technology used in Setrakian’s robots has never been applied to the field before.

Syfy
'Commander' robot

“No matter what your background, be it as a robotics engineer, hobbyist, or if you’ve never studied robotics at all, we were all on the same page learning to operate these robots,” Younse said. “The technology is so new, there’s no steering wheel or keyboard required.

Robot Combat League does come with a fair amount of reality TV drama (think overly dramatic music and editing), but at least the contestants don’t all live together in a Southern California mansion.

And when it really comes down to it, the fascinating technology and robotics on display, accompanied by exciting combat, steal the show.

Check out Robot Combat League online, and see if you agree. Robot Combat League’s official premier is Feb. 26 at 10 ET/9CT, but the first episode is already up and streaming at Syfy.com.

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