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If a giant robot-fighting league ever does come to pass, BattleBots probably set the whole thing in motion.
Debuting in 2000, the television series BattleBots challenged teams to build their own robots and pit them in three-minute matches against robots built by other teams. The metallic combatants were divided into weight classes — Lightweight (60 pounds), Middleweight (120 pounds), Heavyweight (220 pounds), and Superheavyweight (340 pounds) — with the goal being to damage, disable, immobilize, or destroy the other team's remotely controlled robot to earn as many points as possible and proceed to the next round. The show lasted five seasons on Comedy Central, with later incarnations appearing in 2015 and 2016 on ABC, and a new edition currently airing on the Discovery Channel. Fanatical viewers sided with their favorite robots and the teams that created those 'bots from an almost endless variety of designs, the appeal being the visceral joy of watching their favorites crush, impale, stomp, burn, and obliterate their opponents as they moved toward victory.
To Matt Oehrlein and Gui Cavalcanti, the next logical step was to create a giant fighting robot. In their vision, that robot would be piloted by a person or persons who actually rode inside it.
Oehrlein and Cavalcanti met up in the Boston area, engineers who'd each run "maker spaces" — rented facilities in which people gather to work on various technical construction projects. Oehrlein was on the verge of an interview with famed robotics company Boston Dynamics when the two began discussing their shared interest in maker projects and robotics. Along with Andrew Stroup, the pair eventually founded MegaBots Inc. in Somerville, Massachusetts, prior to moving the company out to the Bay Area. They headquartered in Hayward, and began building robots in West Oakland's American Steel complex.
MegaBots first exploded on the Bay Area pop culture and entertainment scene in 2015, by bringing their new Iron Glory robot to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo. With its ability to crush cars; fire three-pound, 3D printed, paint-filled cannonballs at 130 miles per hour through car windows; and inspire the imaginations of crowds who loved the idea of giant robots, it became an immediate crowd pleaser.
"We do things like appliances, washing machines, dishwashers," Oehrlein said. "And when they watch the robot do it, it's really, really impressive."
But Oehrlein and Cavalcanti had a bigger goal than merely smashing appliances at Maker Faire.
"The goal has always been from the very beginning to do stadium-sized robot battles," Oehrlein recalled. "So, yeah, in five years, I see something like 60,000 people in a stadium cheering for their favorite robot team."
Thanks in part to the reaction of crowds at Maker Faire, the men discovered that they could turn such demonstrations into a fundraising technique. Members of the public would pay to destroy things, with each dollar bringing MegaBots that much closer to financing its robot sports league.
"When people hear the words 'giant fighting robots,' they mostly think of a Transformers movie," Oehrlein said. "They expect Optimus Prime to jump into the sky and grab a helicopter and throw it into the ground and all kinds of really crazy stuff. The reality is that MegaBots is never going to live up to what can happen in Hollywood movies. We have to obey the laws of physics and the limitations of today's technology. But, the advantage we have is our robots are real. People can actually touch them and get inside them and it's something that can happen in people's lifetimes."
Today, you can visit MegaBots.com to book your own $1,149 session piloting Eagle Prime. "Crush it!" the website exhorts. "Unlimited power at your fingertips. Buckle-into the gunner's seat and wield Eagle Prime's massive claw that exerts over 3,000-lbs of crushing force. Eagle Prime is hungry for some smashing time and needs you behind the joysticks to make it happen. We'll feed you TVs, old couches, appliances, or any 'specialty items' you might want to destroy with a giant robot! Bring your friends because they're not gonna believe this."
And if just controlling the robot's arm is not sufficiently fulfilling, MegaBots also offers a "'Full-blown Pilot Experience.' Instead of just controlling Eagle Prime's arm, you'll control the whole damn thing. Pilot all 15-tons of powerful fighting machinery — chainsaw and all — and be the envy of all your friends. Now is your chance to experience what has been nearly everyone's dream at some point. Options include: Co-piloting with a friend, vehicle destruction, and flamethrower attachment."
A video on the website shows an overjoyed young woman named Whitney crushing and then flipping over a large printer or copier in a scene inspired by the cathartic copier destruction scene in the movie Office Space. Oehrlein said the strangest item destroyed to date was a piano. "Cars are always a favorite because you know they're really big and everybody kind of has a feel for it and you watch the robot pick it up as easily as you'd pick up a rock."
Peter Lenarcic, a 56-year-old Fairfield automation supervisor with extensive mechanical experience, booked time in May and October of 2018. His roughly $1,000 booking fee bought him a full hour in Eagle Prime, with about 15 minutes of orientation and 30 to 45 minutes of run time. Lenarcic received cockpit orientation, inserted himself into the roll cage, and strapped into a 5-point racing harness to keep him safely in his seat. Asked to describe the experience of smashing things in Eagle Prime, his reply was like listening to a child joyously extolling the features of his or her favorite new ride at an amusement park.