February: Bristol is now ‘the UK’s hotbed of robot fighting’ | News and features


Bristol is now Britain’s hotbed of robot combat, with dozens of engineers and enthusiasts building vicious machines to bruise mechanical melee.

That’s according to Joe Brown of Bristol Bot Builders, who has been building and battling robots for almost 10 years.

Joe and his team prepare for a battle between 50 robots in Bristol on February 26, one of many such competitions taking place across the UK.

In recent years, robot combat has grown in popularity due to the greater availability of tools, parts, and know-how.

Many start out by making tiny 150g robots that fight in dishwasher-sized Plexiglas boxes, before moving on to heavier, deadlier machines.

The sport mixes the crunch of brawling metal with a spirit of fun and camaraderie.

Many are attracted by its wacky side. The ‘Two Headed Death Flamingo’, a 110kg hot pink robot with two powerful axes, is made by Joe and his friends in Bristol: you can spot them at competitions by their distinctive pink jackets and flamingo hats lively.

Joe, a community teacher at the University of Bristol, said: ‘We used to have a robot made from a Weetabix. It was a real fan favorite and lasted quite a few battles. The cleaning job was horrible though.

“When I first started fighting, I was amazed at the camaraderie. If your robot is totaled, everyone steps in to help you, even the people you fight next round.

Like many, Joe’s first taste for the sport came while watching Robot Wars on the BBC. But it wasn’t until he started a degree in electronics engineering at the University of Bristol that he realized how easy it was to get involved.

He said: “A lot of people in the sport aren’t really engineers. It’s a very low barrier to entry and you get a lot of garage builds. You get people with a saw and spare metal going hand in hand with someone’s PhD project – and often the least complicated one comes out on top.

“When I got to college, I suddenly had loads of amazing facilities and workshops I could use. Electronic engineering degrees are more course-oriented – getting your hands on lathes, drills column and 3D printers taught me a lot.

Bristol students can use the University’s workshops for their constructions. Others can join Joe and co at the Bristol Hackspace near Bristol Temple Meads, where, for around ten months, newbies can get started and learn the basics of robot building.

Beginners can also buy starter kits and get free guides from their website.

Robot builders often have the occasional battle with each other, but there are a growing number of larger competitions taking place across the UK.

The ‘BBB – Beetle Brawl’ at St Michael’s Centre, Stoke Gifford on February 26 will feature four teams from Bristol. Brawl tickets sold out in minutes; it is free to watch but a £5 donation is welcome. The fights start at 11 a.m.

Joe said: “It will be a great event. I would say Bristol is now the home of robot fighting in the UK.”

In true Bristol style, there’s also a battle with smaller robots at the Cidre Box on March 13.

Gareth Barnaby is a member of Bristol Battle Bots and a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol. He, too, started building robots while studying at Bristol – and even appeared on Robot Wars.

His team’s battle machine, “Nuts”, began life as a 150g robot made from a tube of Pringles. They scaled Nuts until he became 102 kg of fast-spinning metal that punched holes in massive steel robots.

Gareth said: “What I really love about this hobby is that it’s a fun way to apply engineering.

“I do a lot of robotics for my PhD work and all of my electronics and motor controls have been tested in robots.”

As an outreach teacher, Joe uses his skills to inspire young Bristolians to engineeringdesigning fun tasks like building simple robots.

Professor Angela Doufexi, Head of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol, said: “Robot combat is a great way to test the mettle of engineering concepts and show how fun it can be to put theory into practice.

“Joe and Gareth are fantastic examples of people who love using their engineering skills to design and build cool things, but also like to have fun along the way.”

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