abandon all hope ye robots who enter


 Santa Barbara News Press

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Article in the Santa Barbara News Press on 8/27/2000

photos by Jeff Clark

War on wheels:

UCSB grad student builds vicious robots for sport

By Starshine Roshell

Staff Writer

Santa Barbara News-Press

The life of a graduate student doesn't afford much time for extracurricular pursuits.

So whenever UCSB doctoral candidate Jason Bardis gets a spare moment, he spends it on the important things in his life: visits home to see his mom in Ohio, swing dancing with his sweetheart, brushing up on his French -- and building ferocious warrior robots to compete in savage public death matches.

Come again?

Yes, the 29-year-old mechanical engineering student and self-described "gearhead" is a hard-wired fanatic of Robot Wars, the popular new sport that allows its testosterone-fueled participants to build things with power tools and then watch in awe as they're violently destroyed.

These battles, which take place a few times a year in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Long Beach, are the subject of an irreverent new show on Comedy Central called "BattleBots," which features Bardis and one of his maniacal mechanical monsters on its Wednesday debut at 10:30 p.m. Bardis' hot dog-shaped robot, The Missing Link, goes up against a feisty fighting machine called Ziggo in the first round.

Tune in and you'll see a raucous spectacle that fuses the tongue-in-cheek theatrics of the World Wrestling Federation with the utter carnage of the Demolition Derby.

"God help us all!" hollers the announcer as the games get under way. In a giant Thuderdome-like arena surrounded by shatter-proof glass, remote-controlled robots weighing up to 500 pounds ram, poke and hack at each other while thousands of fans cheer from the surrounding stands. Meanwhile, buzz saws and sharp spikes shoot up from the floor to further test each machine's mettle. Points are awarded for aggression, strategy and damage inflicted.

Bardis, who grew up building model cars and loving Legos, first read about the competitions in Wired magazine in 1994.

"There was a picture of a remote-control truck with a gas-powered chain saw mounted on it," he said, practically giddy at the thought. "It was a combination of all the things boys love -- trucks, chain saws, violence."

But beyond the promise of combative mayhem, he was intrigued by the engineering challenge.

"It's a very simple problem: Disable the other guy's robot," he said. "But all these people from different backgrounds have different solutions to that problem."

Creators range from computer programmers to movie effects specialists to carpenters to parent-child teams (although few women have jumped into the robot ring). The robots themselves are as varied in appearance as the worker droids that wheel in and out of "Star Wars" scenes.

There's Ziggo, an upside-down Wok that slices and dices. There's Mauler, a fearsome spinning drum flanked with razors. There's Overkill, a gigantic knife on wheels, and Frenzy, a titanium battle-ax powered by a treadmill motor and wielding a meat tenderizer.

The creators keep tabs on each other's latest inventions via online message boards.

"Everybody talks smack about whose robot's better," Bardis said.

He has built six fighting machines with names like Rampage, Dr. Inferno and Bot Will Eat Itself. The bedroom of his Goleta apartment is lined with industrial shelves bearing both good (a few trophies) and bad (broken robot parts) mementos from the seven competitions he has been in.

Bardis has armed his creations with circular saws, scuba spear guns and something he calls a "custom pointy poker." He has equipped them with power window motors and landing gear switches from airplanes. He has given them blinking "eyes" and moveable arms and he has spent a fortune doing so.

In the last two years, he has shelled out $3,500 for parts from hardware stores and industrial supply catalogs. He's looking for a sponsor to supplement this mad science. In the meantime, he cuts down on costs by collecting unwanted machine parts from various engineering laboratories.

"One man's junk is another man's treasure," said Bardis, who has gone Dumpster diving at Boeing and snagged rubber and sheet metal from UCSB's machine lab.

While researching the use of composite materials in aerospace for his Ph.D., Bardis has access to a high-pressure machine on campus that allows him to make custom robot parts out of carbon fiber. He has considered adorning his next creation with two carbon-fiber casserole dishes he made as a school project.

There are few rules about what materials can and cannot be used on these robots. Explosives and flame-throwers are no-nos, as are any tools that dole out electric shocks. Furthermore, all weapons must be securely tethered so the robots can't accidentally harm audience members.

"They're generally well-behaved, but they do get out of hand sometimes," Bardis said. "I have a handful of scars on my legs and hands. When you're working with drill presses and lathes, it's inevitable."

Disappointments are inevitable, too. After all the work he puts into building these creatures, and all the time he and his supportive, though not-particularly-interested girlfriend spend stuffing them into his hatchback and hauling them to competitions, it's hard to watch them get pummeled to bits by a meaner, nastier machine.

"You can be pretty crestfallen," he said. But it's not a total waste ^ he sics his new models on the mangled cadavers to test their fighting power.

The prospect of building better and better robots is what keeps Bardis hooked on this kooky hobby.

"Some people build strictly to win, some people build to impress, some people build to learn," he said. "Some people build to watch their thing get destroyed spectacularly" which is what happened to the ChiaBot, a shrub on wheels that one of Bardis' robots pruned without incident at a recent competition.

And surely some participants do it for the prize money, which can be up to $7,500 at "BattleBots." Bardis admits to coveting that cold, hard cash and has even considered abandoning the degree he's been working on for six years to compete full time.

"It's a lot more fun in the short term," he said. "But no matter how well you do, nobody calls you 'doctor' at the end of it."

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