Robot Gladiators Prepare Kids for Manufacturing Jobs

May 31, 2011

Robot battles have drawn kids into novels, TV shows, and movies for decades. Now companies are using robot wars to attract a new generation of employees to high-tech manufacturing.

On a Saturday morning in Indianapolis, 100 high school students from around the country gather in an airplane hangar to enter their creations in an epic war.

"Three, two, one, let 'er rip!" says local business owner Steve Overton, who is serving as announcer.

On his cue, the machines fire up. They look more like toy cars than mechanical people. Except unlike most remote control cars, these have spinning metal blades and other weapons attached to them.

Armageddon v. Steel Raptor

Inside an eight-foot-tall bulletproof glass cage, the gladiators buzz, crash, and generally demolish each other. The bulletproof glass is an important feature — chunks of metal fly in all directions as students drive the robots using remote control.

One robot named Armageddon smashes its opponent, Steel Raptor, with a spinning hammer weapon. The victim flies six feet into the air. Eventually Steel Raptor lies inert, and the student competitors applaud the end of the match.

This project has a greater goal than robot demolition. The organizers are trying to interest young people in high-tech manufacturing.

"Manufacturing's not a smokestack industry anymore," says National Tooling and Machining Association Chairman Grady Cope. "What we do is cool."

Cope's company sponsors this robot fight league. He owns his own manufacturing company outside Denver.

"We don't have any incoming young people, and our businesses are all ready to grow right now," he says. "One of the things we've really wanted to do is find a way to attract kids back to the engineering and manufacturing environments."

Learning Skills While Building Robots

Local manufacturers team up with high school and college students to help build the robot competitors. In the process, the students gain exposure to a modern manufacturing shop.

Many of these companies have big computer-controlled robotic machines that make parts for anything from jet engines to racing bicycles to surgical tools. These businesses need workers who are good with math to program and operate those machines.

Anna Zolnikov, 15, is the driver for one of her team's robots. In what may have been the most dramatic hit of the day, she knocked out an opponent in about 3 seconds. Now she's working on another robot in the pit-crew area.

"I'm fixing my robot," she says. "One of its teeth was knocked off in a fight, so I'm putting him all back together."

The effort seems to be working overall. At the table next to Zolnikov, high school senior Dakotah Cleaver of Bloomsburg, Pa., says when he goes to college next year he plans to study high tech engineering.

"When I came into high school I had no idea what I wanted to do, but getting into this definitely got me interested in the engineering aspect of things," he says.

But first he must prepare his robot, Excessive Force, for the next battle. It has a big steel and bronze lobster claw hanging off its side.

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