Jashan Bhoora | blog

Posted: 21/08/2016

Growing up, I used to love watching Robot Wars on BBC2. At the time, the show epitimised everything I loved about technology. My brother and I were quite obsessed with it, watching the show whenever we found it on TV, playing together with the Arena playset and mini pullback robot models for hours on end; the first PS2 game we ever owned was none other than "Robot Wars: Arenas of Destruction", in which the player(s) build their own robot to compete against the big name robots as seen on TV, in a host of championships around the world. (I won them all.)

Needless to say, I wanted to build a robot and fight it myself. Also needless to say, is that as an 8-9 year old I had no idea what that really entailed, and given that my parents do not have technical backgrounds, me begging my Dad to help me build a robot to go on TV never amounted to much...
Then of course, in 2004 the show was cancelled, and over time that dream faded away with it...

Fast forward 12 years, and I'm on my placement year, working at my desk at CC. Soon after joining, I developed a habit of regularly checking the internal bulletin board, since interesting news articles, seminars, items for sale etc. are often posted.

One day, a post entitled "Robot Wars Coming Back?" appears.

The post linked to this BBC article, and the author (Gary) went on to say that he had a heavy weight robot called Infernal Contraption in his garage that he would love to see fighting again. To be completely honest, I didn't get too excited reading the post. Robot Wars was something that hadn't crossed my mind for years, and this was the first I was hearing of it even coming back. I ended up closing the post and going back to work.

9 days later, a follow up posted appeared. Having mulled it over for a week, I had remembered how much this used to mean to me, and here was an offer to help bring a robot back to life. I sent an email registering interest, and that was that.

At this point, I found out more about Infernal Contraption. Infernal Contraption (or IC) is an invertable axlebot. It is made up of 3 individually controlled parts: 2 wheels and the main body. The main body houses the weapon, which is a 16Kg spinning drum with 4 teeth, reaching speeds of up to 1000RPM. It turned out that Gary had been part of the team that built Infernal Contraption whilst studying at Imperial College. IC had competed in Series 6 and 7 of the original show, and was down to compete on Series 8, had it not been cancelled. You can see more about the original robot on the Robot Wars Wiki, and on the Infernal Contraption website.

At first nothing much happened. Gary brought IC into CC, and it lived in the company workshop whilst the still forming team worked out a plan. This was the first time I had ever been able to get up close to a heavyweight robot you might see on TV, and the thing that struck me the most was the sheer size of it! On TV, they look relatively small when they are fighting in the Arena, and though you get some idea of scale when they wheel them out in the pits, you need to stand before one before you can truly appreciate what it is!

After this, progress came slowly but surely. With the team set (myself, Gary, Alex and Doug), research into the upgrades the robot would need commenced. Mentorn (the Robot Wars organisers) had granted each team £1000 to spend on improving their robot for the show. This was welcome news, since historically, Infernal Contraption had had a range of technical problems due to the limitations of the mainstream RC technology available at the time it was originally built.

A month passes... and in that time, Infernal Contraption rises from the dust. The old 40MHz radio gear is replaced with new 2.4GHz equipment, solving the old reception and antenna problems. The heavy lead-acid batteries are switched out with lithium-iron-phosphate cells, providing more power for a fraction of the mass. Thanks to the modern radio system, the polycarbonate armour on the wheel ends could be replaced with metal endcaps. The bulky 4QD motor controllers were replaced with much smaller hobbyist (think multicopter) ESCs. In amongst all of these major changes, countless smaller ones were made to accommodate for the new parts, and strengthen the existing structure. In addition, a Mentorn film crew came to visit us as we were getting started, capturing footage of the robot, as well as some "hero" shots of the team, which are the very cheesy shots you see on TV (though it was a lot of fun)! At this point, the idea of competing on TV became very real for everyone.

In the fortnight leading up to the filming weekend the team worked flat out, staying until midnight every night after work, and going into the workshop over the weekend to make sure everything was ready in time.

Typically, every other change we made introduced a new problem that needed a solution.

We had just got the robot fully working by the time we were ready to head up to Glasgow, Alex having worked until 4am adding final touches!

6 hours and 500 miles later, and we arrive at the Arena. From the outside, you would never think one of the coolest competitions to exist was being filmed inside...aside from the occasional crash-bang of metal hitting metal that reverberated throughout the structure, and the thunderous cheer that would always follow. We unloaded IC onto our bay in the Pits, and took the opportunity to scope out the competition and explore.

I can confirm, that The Arena and The Pits are every bit as impressive as they look on TV. Lasers, lights, and lots and lots of robots. The bustle of teams making preparations for their next fight, the roar of the crowd, smoke and sparks from the welding area, Dara, Angela and the judges occasionally weaving their way through the Pits, often followed by a recording team equipped with hefty TV cameras and fancy jigs that made carrying them around look effortless...the promise of action just from being in the room. It was a perfect atmosphere.

There was never a dull moment inside this warehouse. At one moment, you could be in The Pits working on your (or someone else's!) robot. The next, you'd be watching the live filming of one of the introduction sequences with Dara. Maybe you'd be chatting to the other roboteers and hearing about their battle stories and tactics, or, you might be dashing to The Pits viewing room with everyone else, hoping you wouldn't miss the start of the next fight as "3, 2, 1, ACTIVATE" boomed around The Arena.

Being in The Pits, we didn't have open access to the Arena to go and watch the battles live (aside from our own, of course). Instead, there was a TV inside the "cabin" room where we ate lunch, that was connected to the live feeds of all the cameras. There, we watched all the fights and footage as you will see them on TV (sans Johnathan Pearce's commentary), as well as all the bits you won't see on TV! Do you like Dara's intros at the beginning of the episodes? Trust me, they were just as impressive watching them live, and we watched him do them over least 3 times each! And all the Pit and post-match interviews; you don't think about all the retakes and do-overs that happen before you get the slick show you see on TV. The magic of television I guess! But I digress...

Unfortunately, the next part of the story is the bit you have probably seen on TV...
(Don't read on if you haven't seen episode 5 and plan on watching it!)

We had arrived on the second day of the first weekend of filming, meaning we were going to first appear on one of the heats on episode 5. This also meant that a good proportion of the fights from episodes 1 to 3 had already been filmed. Word on the events of the previous fights was slim, however chief amongst the rumours was that multiple time World Champion Razor had been eliminated in the first round. I had very much expected them to be a part of the new series, but hearing they had gone out in the first round was a shock to all. It was also a reminder to all (since many other competitors were also veterans of Robot Wars and the sport of Fighting Robots in general), and it was all to play for.

Our time slot to compete arrived. In The Pits, we had done our final checks, and tested IC in the test arena. All 3 systems seemed to be working as expected. It turned out that the upgrades had made IC around 20kg lighter in total, meaning that we would be much easier to flip (not that the flippers would have had problems if we were heavier - the weight limit is 110Kg, and the flippers could all deal with more than that easily). With our safety checks completed, we loaded up and headed to the Arena with our opponents: Beast, Gabriel and Crazy Coupe 88.

Waiting in the wings to deploy our robot, I got my first close up of the new Arena and new House Robots, managing to get up to the back of the crowd-stands. The new Dead Metal was already in the Arena, whilst the crew were busy fixing a light or camera. I never saw the old Arena live, however the new one seemed to be a lot smaller than I remember the old one to be. The CPZ's seemed to dominate the Arena a lot more, and in addition to the well known pit and flipper hazards, a fire pit and spike zone had also been introduced. With the bigger CPZ's, this Arena seemed to force competitors together to avoid the House Robots; something surely done to produce more exciting bouts.

If the Arena was impressive, then the new House Robots where on a completely different level altogether. They are bigger, better and badder than they ever were before. Dead Metal has glowing yellow blades for eyes, and a lethal diamond cutting disc. Matilda's "lifting tusks" are now fully fledged flipping tusks, and she has a faster flywheel to boot. Shunt has probably changed the least, being bigger but as solid as ever. Then there's Sir Killalot, who now weighs in at over 700Kg and has an upgraded 200 tonne crushing claw. He's also a lot faster than the 5mph top speed he used to have, and is powered by an array of car batteries instead of a petrol engine. He also has a completely new look, which is excellently menacing, but has caused something of a split opinion.

Eventually we got chased off the crowd-stands (for health and safety reasons, of course) and soon after we were loading IC onto the Arena floor. A couple of "hero" poses later (you probably saw those on TV...they are definitely on the new website...) and we headed to the control room.

Standing in the control booth was surreal. Waiting for the round to start, it seemed hard to forget that every single thing you do will be seen by the beefy camera staring at you from the corner of the room. But still, as the voiceover counts the fight in, you find that everything fades out, to the point that all I can remember is: I was controlling the weapon on IC, it stopped responding, Gary put the Pit down, we got bashed around a bit...we were in the Pit.

That crushing moment that IC fell in the pit seemed to last for ages to us. At one point, I actually thought we had avoided falling in as we were teetering on the edge of the drop. But we had, and our competition was over.

We were out around a minute into our battle, which meant we were just watching the other robots fight for the rest of the time. Crazy Coupe 88 was eliminated just before us, meaning Beast and Gabriel went through. Writing this (before the series has started airing), I'm hoping I don't look too despondent in the post-match interview with Angela, because at the time I know we all felt it. The worst part was that we hadn't been able to really get involved and do anything after our drum stopped spinning. IC was completely undamaged, save for a couple of dents from Gabriel.

The teams post-match investigation concluded that during robot activation before the battle, the weapon link hadn't been fully inserted and secured. All robots are required to have at least one "link", which is simply a big electrical connection that acts as the master switch for the robot. Without it, a robot should not be able to function at all as a matter of safety. IC's design means that it has to have 3 independant circuits, and therefore 3 links. During the battle, you were able to see the green lights on either side of the weapon start flickering, and then eventually go out completely, meaning the weapon motor had no power. The link contacts also had black marks from arcing that had been occuring internally during the fight. The loss of weapon prompted Gary to lower the pit and attempt to knock someone else in. Sadly however, the tyres on IC are the same set that were used for the original series. Since then the rubber had become hard and relatively slippy, and we just didn't have time to change it before filming. In the end, we had no traction on the metal floor of the arena, and we ended up tumbling straight into the pit (even though Gary swears he had the wheels going full tilt in the opposite direction)!

Anyway, despite our competition being over in the first weekend, we headed back up to Glasgow on the second weekend just in case we needed to stand in for another robot. We also got to participate in some untelevised fights to entertain the crowd, and got to soak up the atmosphere as the drama unfolded, and the competitors wittled down to the winning team.

Regardless of our result, this experience has been one of the best of my life. Competing on Robot Wars was something I'd long accepted was never going to happen and forgotten about. I'd love to tell you more, but you'll just have to keep watching to find out what happens, and who wins!

As part of IC's revival, I've also redesigned it's website, which you can find at www.infernalcontraption.co.uk. I've also produced a short video of some of the teams exploits leading up to The Wars, which you can find below, along with a photo gallery including my behind the scenes experiences on set!

You can see the full photo album of my time behind the scenes here, and a video of the team at work below!