University of Bristol: Bristol is now ‘robot combat hotbed of UK’

Bristol is now the UK hotbed of robot combat, with dozens of engineers and enthusiasts building vicious machines for bruising mechanical melees.

That’s according to Joe Brown, from Bristol Bot Builders, who has been making and fighting robots for nearly 10 years.

Joe and his team are preparing for a battle between 50 robots in Bristol on February 26, one of many such competitions popping up across the UK.

Over the past few years robot combat has gained in popularity thanks to greater availability of tools, parts and know-how.

Many begin by making tiny 150g robots that battle in Perspex boxes the size of dishwashers, before graduating to heavier and more deadly machines.

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

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

Joe, an Outreach Teacher at the University of Bristol, said: “We once had a robot made out of a Weetabix. It was a real fan favourite and lasted quite a few battles. The clean-up job was awful though.

“When I first started fighting I was surprised by the comradery. If your robot gets totaled everyone pitches in to help, even the people you are fighting in the next round.”

Like many, Joe’s first taste of the sport came from watching Robot Wars on the BBC. But it wasn’t until he began an Electronic Engineering degree at the University of Bristol that he realised how easy it was to get involved.

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

“When I got to Uni I suddenly had loads of amazing facilities and workshops that I could use. Electronic Engineering degrees are quite classroom based – to get my hands on lathes, pillar drills and 3D printers helped me learn so much.”

Bristol students can use University workshops for their builds. Others can join Joe and co at Bristol Hackspace near Bristol Temple Meads, where for a tenner a month beginners can muck in and learn the rudiments of robot building.

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

Robot builders often have casual battles amongst themselves, but there are a growing number of bigger competitions happening across the UK.

The ‘BBB – Beetle Brawl’ at The St Michael’s Centre, Stoke Gifford, on 26 February will include four teams from Bristol. Places in the Brawl sold out in minutes; it is free to spectate but a £5 donation is welcome. Fights start at 11am.

Joe said: “It’s going to be a great event. I’d say Bristol is now the hotbed of robot combat in the UK.”

In true Bristol style there is also a battle with smaller robots at the Cider Box on March 13.

Gareth Barnaby is a fellow Bristol Battle Bots member and a University of Bristol PhD student. He too began building robots while studying at Bristol – and has even appeared on Robot Wars.

His team’s fighting machine, ‘Nuts’, started life as a 150g robot made from a pringles tube. They scaled Nuts up until it became 102kg of rapid rotating metal that gouged holes in solid steel robots.

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

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

As an Outreach Teacher, Joe uses his skills to inspire young Bristolians into engineering, devising 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 like to use their engineering talents to design and build interesting things, but who also like to have a lot of fun along the way.”

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