Robot Wars S3, and implications for future warfare

Series three of the new-look Robot Wars has come to an end, and with it, one of the best series to date. While fans of the show will have certainly enjoyed some of the most intense, destructive robot battles seen in the show’s long history, the final ended with a deserving victor, proving that reliability and driver skill still trump money and new tech.

Warning: this blog contains spoilers. 

And the winner is…

If you haven’t seen the series finale yet, I highly recommend it, even if it’s not normally your cup of tea, as there is some genuinely exciting robot fighting action. Congratulations go to team Eruption for winning a close-fought final. Not only did Eruption defeat the reigning champion Carbide in the final battle, but it also won through via the 10-robot rumble, beating nine other competitors in a ‘second place play-off’ on the way to taking a place in the final rounds.

The Robot Wars arena

The Robot Wars arena

The best series yet

Robot Wars is an interesting show for me, both as a fan, and as an academic. I’ve been following it from its inception and the pilot series with Jeremy Clarkson as host, followed by the ‘golden years’ with Craig Charles and Philippa Forrester. The return of the series in 2016 has been great from a fan’s perspective as it’s brought Robot Wars to a whole new audience and has helped to bring to light some quite stunning robots. Indeed, Magnetar may well be one of the most ‘beautiful’ robots I think I’ve ever seen – alongside gold-chrome Rapid, another outstanding machine.

The simply stunning Magnetar, Robot Wars S3

The simply stunning Magnetar

Yet somewhat surprisingly, neither Magnetar nor Rapid won the competition. Rather, it was the tenacious and well-driven Eruption, a perennial finalist, that came through and took home the prize. This, despite the thousands of pounds and thousands of hours spent on the likes of Magnetar and Rapid that unfortunately came to nought in the final battles. So why is this, and what does it tell us about design trends? What might it also tell us about technology in modern warfare?

Changing design philosophies

There have been several major design philosophies to appear in Robot Wars over the years. The first, and most significant, was the flipper, which came to dominate for several years before competitors responded accordingly and started to build robots that could either drive upside down, or that could ‘self-right’ to get out of trouble.

There has also been a fairly consistent undercurrent of axes and pneumatic hammer type devices designed to inflict damage from above. While Thor and Terrorhurtz did well to make it to the final of this year’s competition, I’m still yet to see axe-type weapons do any kind of serious damage. These days they feel especially antiquated when faced with the latest design trend of kinetic energy spinners, and the sleek, low-to-the-ground machines such as Magnetar that most axes simply can’t even hit.

A word should go to ‘crushers’ and other similar weapons at this point which, like axes, seem an ever-present trend in Robot Wars. While Razer remains the ultimate example of the crusher – perhaps the greatest machine in Robot Wars history – no other crusher has ever come close. This year in particular, the crushers or ‘grabbers’ have been particularly woeful as they rarely do sufficient damage, and are just too slow when faced with explosive flippers and high damage spinners.

Razer

Razer – quite possibly the greatest robot in the history of Robot Wars

So what have we learnt?

One of the most interesting things to come out of Series Three of Robot Wars for me, is that despite the increasing complexity (and beauty) of some of the high-end machines, it was a fairly ‘standard’ robot to win not only the final, but also the extra qualifying round of second place finishers. Eruption’s win can be put down to several factors:

  • Simple mechanics.
  • Reliable machinery.
  • Tried and tested design.
  • Easily repaired and recharged.
  • Driver skill and control.

Compared to some of the high-end machines like Magnetar and Rapid, Eruption (without meaning to cause any offence) is built more along the ‘Brunelian’ line of engineering when compared to the smaller, sleeker machines that are almost over-designed to do what is in actual fact quite a simple job. When they work, they work incredibly well. But when they don’t work, even the slightest issue can lead to defeat.

Eruption, the winner of Robot Wars S3

Eruption, the winner of Robot Wars S3

Let us not forget that most of Brunel’s bridges are still standing. Sure, they may not be pretty, or amazing examples of modern architecture, but they have a single job, and they do that job very well. If they go wrong, they are easily repaired, and they don’t require a great deal of expense. Nor can I imagine that they require quite the same level of expertise to repair should the need so arise.

There is then perhaps a lesson to be learnt here when it comes to military technology and the application of force to the modern battlefield. Certainly the high-tech, light-weight kit is all well and good, but in some instances, the over-design and over-complication of certain technologies can be a hindrance when faced with the multitude of situations that a soldier might face on the modern-day battlefield. Sometimes the simplest solutions really are the best.

General observations

  • Reliability still key. It doesn’t matter how good the weapon, or how sleek the design, if the robot fails, the battle is lost. And this isn’t just isolated to a single battle, but rather a series of battles in close proximity to each other. If you can’t repair your machine and get it back out on the battlefield in good time, then the war is lost.
  • Driver skill trumps robot tech. If Eruption’s win goes to show anything, it’s that careful planning, a good driver and a responsive robot can far out-perform robots that are far more technologically advanced. This goes to show that the ‘human factor’ is still perhaps one of the most important (and underrated) factors in modern Robot Wars.
  • Rapid, Robot Wars S3

    Rapid, Robot Wars S3

    Maximum power does not equate to ‘maximum win’. Rapid has been described as perhaps the most expensive robot in Robot Wars history – a flipper robot ‘turned up to 10’. And yet for all of its fantastic performances, Rapid didn’t last the distance. In fact, as soon as it was overwhelmed by Carbide, it burst into flames. Eruption on the other hand, weathered the storm and defeated Carbide with a far more reliable, far more resilient machine controlled by a better driver. This goes to show that turning your technology up to maximum doesn’t necessarily equate to turning your robot up to ‘maximum win’.

  • Stretch the rules to the max. Some of the robots in this series didn’t use their whole weight allowance, and it really showed. If the rules say your machine can weigh X Kg, then rest assured that all of your opponents can and will use up their entire weight allowance, giving them a distinct advantage in terms of either armour, weaponry or sheer grunt.
  • Swarm bots still in their infancy. ‘Swarm’ or ‘cluster’ bots have been around in Robot Wars for some time now, though on the most part they remain ineffective, and insufficiently well thought out. However, in this year’s Final, the group battle with Behemoth, Nuts and Carbide, featured several ‘mini bots’ that did go on to show how the swarm tactic can sometimes work to great effect. Given a weight allowance of say, 100 Kg, I would be very interested to see the impact x10 equivalent 10 Kg swarm bots would have in a battle against a 100 Kg machine – especially given that most robots are designed to take on other similar sized machines. Further development in this area could prove very interesting indeed, and could potentially lead to the next big ‘design philosophy’ in Robots Wars (you heard it here first!) The main problem being swarm management, and how you effectively control 10 separate machines on the field of battle. This leads me nicely to my final observation…

Beyond remote control

Though the latest series of Robot Wars has been by far one of the best I have seen, it does pose some questions. Aside from the observations I have list above, the final and perhaps most important for me is that despite the series name – ‘Robot Wars’ – the robots we are seeing are still very much built as human-driven machines. There is little in the way of real computer mediation, and they essentially function as armoured versions of toy remote control cars. For the series to be truly worthy of its name Robot Wars, I would hope and expect in the coming years that competitors look at ways they can use real-time data from the robots to directly influence the course of a battle.

While the introduction of the new ‘fog of war’ pit hazard has certainly gone to introduce a new dimension to the robot battles, it would be interesting to see how robot designs work around this. Is there a need perhaps for some degree of robot autonomy? Can robots be built to include some fail-safe functions for example, that revert weapons to auto-fire if remote connection is lost? Or how about ‘kill cams’ such as we have already seen featured on some of the house robots? Clearly cost, and development time are two massive factors restricting competitors, however I was pleased to see some of the roboteers ‘downloading’ information from their robots onto a tablet, and can only hope that this trend continues. I am extremely interested to see where this innovation may take us in the future.

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