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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

BattleBots 2023; Small, Thoughtful Upgrades Can Make a HUGE Difference SJ Barak

(Source: JCRB Photography)

Jonathan Schultz is the founder and captain of Team HUGE. He grew up in New Hampshire before moving to Connecticut after college. An R&D engineer, Jonathan built his first robot, "Duck Yeah", as a college senior project in 2016. In 2017, he, Peter, and Maddie brought three 30lb [13.6kg] robots to the North East Robotics Club (NERC) event Motorama, as he describes, “clueless rookies.” There they met Garrett and Don, who joined their BattleBots team (Figure 1). From their humble beginnings, Jonathan and his team have built three 30lb [13.6kg] Huges, two 3lb [1.4kg] Tiny Huges, and five 250lb [113.4kg] HUGEs.

Figure 1: Mouser-sponsored Team HUGE (Source: JCRB Photography)

I recently got the chance to chat with team lead Jonathan Schultz via email to see what they have in store for the season, and this is what he had to say:

Jonathan, thanks for speaking to me, it’s been quite the journey for you and your BattleBots team, do you want to give us a quick recap?

Five years is a lot to sum up! I was 23 when I started doing this and I’m 28 now. Back in that first year, it was just me, a couple of friends from college, and my girlfriend. Building robots was a hobby we enjoyed in our free time, but when we got into BattleBots, it was a whole other level because that was essentially the Olympics of our little niche hobby. Then we met the people at Mouser, and they helped pave the way for us. Since then, the competition has grown, the robot has grown, and we’ve grown. We have gotten to build robots and chase the dream!

That first year we didn’t have a great idea of what we were doing. I had seen a robot on a British TV show I had bootlegged, which had big wheels, and I thought the concept of big wheels on a robot was cool. I had recently built another robot with a weapon in the middle, and I thought, “what if I could combine these two things together?” That’s how the initial concept of HUGE came about.

That said, we didn’t have much of a plan other than that. We made decisions based on what equipment was readily available and cheap.

By 2019, we had made some significant upgrades to the first version, but in 2020 we threw everything out and started over with a whole new angle. The only problem was that whole new angle was only half built when the world ended over Covid. We just couldn’t get hold of many of the components we needed, including the motor we had ordered from a Chinese company whose factory had been shut down during the lockdown. That meant having to redesign the robot almost completely, and as a result, our 2020 robot didn’t perform very well. We also couldn’t build the robot as a large team due to Covid restrictions, so we were limited by manpower as well. In 2021, people were still Covid cautious, but we built our robot, went out there again, and did better. That one was an upgraded version of our 2020 model, and this season’s robot is a further upgraded version of that—with the same motors—though everything has been fine-tuned to function more seamlessly together. We have simply continued the upgrading cycle. Another team once told us that it takes 3 years to finish and perfect a BattleBot: that you have to build and learn and tweak and learn and tweak some more. We have really found that to be true.

There is no real manual for this. We had to learn a lot ourselves. These combat robots are all unique, which makes it harder, but also more rewarding because as we learn, we realize we’re the only people who are doing this in this way. It’s undoubtedly a much bigger achievement than copying somebody else.

So, aside from the robot you saw on British TV, there was no prototype to go off?

No. I just had a vision of the wheels and weapon, but there was no napkin sketch of what the finished robot should look like, how to make it, how to support it, how it needed to be shaped. We just started building and solving problems as they came up, one by one. That took about nine months because there were so many problems to solve! It started off at just 30lbs [13.6kg], much smaller than our current version. We took it to local events and it did well. Things snowballed from there and solidified the vision of what HUGE should look like. That was our blueprint, and we just had to improve on it from there on out (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Team HUGE continually improves on its original blueprint for the BattleBot. (Source: Jonathan Schultz)

What was your method for figuring out improvements?

The first version we built looked fairly rickety, so one of my teammates picked it up and dropped it. That broke quite a number of things, which, you could argue, set us back and prevented us from having a finished robot, but in hindsight, that was very useful because it showed us where things were weak and needed shoring up and improvement. We were constantly solving problems. We knew it needed legs at the back, so we had to solve for that, we knew it needed things on the side, so we solved for that, we decided to put bike tires on the wheels to give it more grip… everything was trial, error, and iteration (Figure 3). Solving as we went.

Figure 3: Team HUGE adding bike tires on the wheels to give the BattleBot more grip. (Source: Jonathan Schultz)

Tell me about the motors.

In the earliest versions, we went with motors that were cheap and all-in-one solutions. They were gargantuan, were made of very poor-quality metal, and didn't hold up to anything. Then we upgraded those to insanely expensive servomotors for industrial applications, but they were very fragile. In more recent iterations, we have switched to much smaller, more efficient, and more powerful brushless motors. We had specced one out that was supposedly specifically designed for robot combat, with all these hardening steps. It was supposedly able to hold up to various stresses, which sounded perfect, but, when it came down to ordering it, they didn’t have it, so we ordered another one off of the same company's product line. It was just a very regular standard motor used for electric skateboards. It is larger, heavier, and not as robust as the one we wanted, so we had to take various steps to toughen it up ourselves. We also changed how we use them. In 2020, we had two motors used for spinning the blade, and it was geared very fast, so it took a while to accelerate, which caused issues because, tactically, we couldn’t run away that quickly. In 2021, we doubled it to four motors and geared it much slower. Now we can hit other robots harder and more often.

Anything else you tweaked in the current version of the robot?

We had to reorganize the entire inside of the robot, but we’re really happy with the 2022 version!

We put a lot of the electronics out of the path of force, and we left more space around them for padding, which meant we had to make different material choices for more flexible supports. Every change like that also affects reliability. Whereas before, we used to have a very aggressive robot for 30 seconds that then didn’t work so great after that, now we have a very aggressive robot that doesn’t kill itself! Which is great! If anyone looks at the pictures of the robot from last year compared to this year’s one, though, they may not notice any big differences because a lot of the changes were creating more robustness from the inside (Figure 4). It’s the unseen gains. This year’s is not as breakable or as fragile. Everything is just beefed.

Figure 4: Team HUGE made many changes for more robustness from the inside. (Source: Jonathan Schultz)

Is resilience the key to success in BattleBots?

That’s the priority we chose. We wanted to be able to spin all the way up and hit other robots 20 times and not break ourselves instead of prioritizing the heaviest blade going at a million miles an hour because we believe it’s a resilience game.

HUGE is like the Monster Truck of BattleBots. Tell us about the height advantage.

HUGE’s wheels are, well, huge! We're about a foot and a half [46cm] off the floor, which is a height to reach to the underside of the frame. Around three-quarters of the other robots competing can't actually strike the metal electronics portion of HUGE’s frame, which is, of course, a big benefit! We can hit them, but it’s hard for them to hit us. We don’t have to win with one hit, we can take the time to hit the other robot 10 times because of how hard it is for them to retaliate.

But HUGE isn’t just a defensive machine, is it?

No, the blade is also now very powerful! When spinning at full tilt, it can generally cut through people’s armor and their electronics. Lots of people put a top panel on the robot that comes off so their team can service the inside, and we’ve found that a lot of people don’t attach those very well, so we’ve also figured out the angles we need to hit, and because we have a height advantage, our strike angles are unique too (Figure 5). Resilience, versatility, and angles: that’s our winning strategy!

Figure 5: BattleBot competition (Source: JCRB Photography)

What’s the best part of building and competing with robots for you?

It’s such an investment! So many hours, weeks, months, and now years! And every tournament and fight teaches us new things and helps us grow, helps us ask better questions, and we’re the only ones who can answer those questions because our use-case scenarios are too weird to find the answers anywhere else. We’re constantly solving all these unique one-off problems, and it just takes years to do it, but then it all comes together, and that's the magic of the whole thing. That's what is so addictive about it. It’s the chase to perfection. We always think, “just one more thing, if we fix just one more thing, then you’ll be perfect, but there’s always just one more thing. And the other robots get better every year too, so we constantly have to be on our toes and changing things up.

What’s a crazy thing you have on this year’s version of HUGE?

We decided to use this insane engineering plastic that’s bulletproof. NASCAR cars actually have a front splitter made from this very material, and we wanted it for HUGE, but it was hard to get hold of, and we ended up buying the entire commercially available US supply of it. It’s game changing plastic.

Another fun fact about HUGE is that the number of batteries in it is enough to power a full house. We need that power for about three minutes, but it’s still a lot of power. The lithium batteries are rechargeable too. We have 12 of them in the robot at any given time, and we have three full sets of those, and we rotate them throughout the season. It takes a lot of power to spin a blade at 200 something miles [322km/h] per hour!

Is BattleBots all about the robots and the competition?

No, it’s not! I grew up in a very small town, and this competition has introduced me to weird and different people and places. It’s not just about me flexing that I can be a good engineer. I remember the first time I got to be in Vegas and they had slot machines in the airport and in 7-Eleven. We also have met so many great people along the way. I've been to a bunch of people's weddings that I met through doing this, and if I ever get married, they’ll be at mine. I don’t want to say we have shared trauma, it’s more like summer camp where the whole experience is weird and maybe a little bit awful, but then you leave and you're like, “damn, that was great!” There is a lot of sitting around outside in a Las Vegas parking lot in 110°F [43°C] heat getting occasionally hit by sandstorms, but you have to trust me that it’s amazing!

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A regular speaker on the tech conference circuit and a Senior Director at FTI Consulting, SJ Barak is an authority on the electronics space, social media in a b2b context, digital content creation and distribution. She has a passion for gadgets, electronics, and science fiction.

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