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 Vs. Steel Raptor
Inside an 8-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 6 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.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
To inspire the next generation of scientists, a group of small manufacturers is encouraging kids to make robots. And not just any kind of robots. These are robot gladiators. NPR's Chris Arnold has the story.
CHRIS ARNOLD: For a lot of kids in high school, robots are pretty cool. And of course gladiators are pretty cool too. So what could be cooler than Robot Gladiators?
Mr. STEVE OVERTON: OK. Let's get ready for fight number two.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Mr. OVERTON: And three, two, one. Let her rip.
ARNOLD: Its a Saturday morning and a hundred high school students from around the country have met in an airplane hanger in Indianapolis for a robot battle. These competitions are held from time to time in different cities. Each school team brings robots that they've built. They don't look like mechanical people, more like remote control cars but with spinning metal blades and other weapons attached to them. They weigh about 15 pounds.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ARNOLD: The robots fight inside an eight foot high bullet-proof glass cage. The students drive using controls from outside. Local business owner Steve Overton is announcing the match
Mr. OVERTON: Chasing him down, whoa.
(Soundbite of a bang)
Mr. OVERTON: Whoa. Oh, that was a big hit.
ARNOLD: The bullet proof glass is a good idea, since these little robots really tear each other up and send chunks of metal flying in all directions. One robot named Armageddon smashes its opponent; it's named Steel Raptor with a spinning hammer type weapon, and it goes flying six feet in the air.
Unidentified Man #1: Steel Raptor is completely banged up.
(Soundbite of clashing and bangs)
Mr. OVERTON: Whoa.
ARNOLD: Steel Raptor is finally looking completely dead and the match is over.
Unidentified Man #2: Nice job, you got him.
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, baby. Yes.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
(Soundbite of a whistle)
Mr. OVERTON: Armageddon, baby.
(Soundbite of applause)
ARNOLD: Hey, you guys. So you did some damage in that one there it looks like, huh?
Unidentified Man #3: A little more than I expected.
Unidentified Man #2: All right, our team name is Slinger Bots Club from Slinger, Wisconsin.
ARNOLD: Now, plenty of Americans have unusual hobbies. But there's a greater goal in the background here. The organizers are trying to get young people interested in high-tech manufacturing.
Mr. GRADY COPE (Chairman, National Tooling and Machining Association): Manufacturing is not a smoke-stack industry anymore. What we do is cool.
ARNOLD: Grady Cope is the chairman of the National Tooling and Machining Association, which sponsors this robot fight league. He owns his own manufacturing company outside of Denver.
Mr. COPE: We dont have any incoming young people into our businesses and our businesses are all ready to grow right now. And one of the things we've really wanted to do was find a way to attract kids back to the engineering and manufacturing environments.
ARNOLD: To get help building the robots, high school and some college students match-up with local manufacturers. And so, they see inside of a modern manufacturing shop. Many have big, computer-controlled robotic machines that make parts for all kinds of stuff; jet engines, racing bicycles, medical tools for surgery. And these businesses need workers who are good with their hands and who are also good with math, and can program and operate these kinds of machines.
Ms. ANNA ZOLLNIKOV (High School Student): I'm Anna. I'm from Lincoln Sudbury and I'm 15.
ARNOLD: Anna Zollnikov is the driver of one of her team's robots. And she probably had the most dramatic hit of the day, knocking out an opponent in about three seconds. Right now, she's working on another robot in the pit-crew area.
Ms. ZOLLNIKOV: I'm fixing my robot, which was - one of its teeth was knocked off in a fight. So I'm putting him all back together.
ARNOLD: And overall, the effort here seems to be working. At the next table over, Dakotah Cleaver is a high school senior from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. He says he's going to be going to college next year to study high-tech engineering.
Mr. DAKOTAH CLEAVER (High School Student): When I came into high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. But getting to do this definitely got me interested in the engineering aspect of things.
(Soundbite of clashing)
ARNOLD: But first he has to get his robot, named Excessive Force, ready for its next battle. It has a big steel and bronze lobster-like claw hanging off of one side of it.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.