Beyond the battleground
Inside Arizona State University’s Combat Robotics Club
With blades spinning up to 250 miles per hour and the risk of obliterating months of progress within seconds, combat robotics is where creativity and engineering skills flourish.
Combat robotics is an educational endeavor in which grading is inconsequential and the final score is determined by how many pieces the robot is reduced to. This structure deviates from standard robotics competitions by prioritizing dynamic design over sophisticated coding.
A successful robot must retain mobility and sustain intense amounts of force while being easy to replace and fix if broken during competition, with sometimes only 20 minutes allowed for repair between matches. A bot is victorious if its opponent is immobilized, the opponent taps out or is voted out by judges.
Arizona State University’s Combat Ready Robotics club, or CRR, is a student-run organization that tests students’ engineering skills with a mix of chaos, creativity and camaraderie that coursework rarely provides.
On Jan. 20, CRR hosted its local competition, the Sun Devil Smackdown, to celebrate the organization’s progress and allow newer members to test their robots.
Expanding their toolbox
Leading up to competitions, CRR members spend months attending workshops before designing and constructing weaponized remote-control robots to compete in local, state and national competitions.
Caleb Hecht, a manufacturing engineering senior in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and founding member, says the robots are an ideal avenue for learning engineering techniques.
“So much of what we do is education-based,” Hecht says. “We teach people how to use these tools, how to design around equipment and how to operate the equipment they’ll use in their careers.”
CRR provides resources and guidance to students from all backgrounds through workshops that teach the entire robot design and building process.
Designing with intent
Producing a competitive bot requires awareness of physical and mechanical applications, ensuring maximum durability and mobility while also planning for the inevitable repair process. An elaborate robot may be too complicated to repair between matches, yet an oversimplified robot may struggle to hold its own against novel attacks.
“It’s a test of design and if you have a poor design decision, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly because your robot will end up in pieces,” Hecht says.
As students apply principles from coursework on their own terms, they develop skills and perspectives that are valuable in engineering and industry, such as product design, time management and awareness of user experience.
Tyler Wright and Alejandro Gonzalez Gutierrez, mechanical engineering juniors and CRR workshop co-directors, joined the club to explore the practical applications of what they were learning in classes. Gutierrez says CRR allowed him to develop confidence and communication skills that helped him in job interviews.
“It happens a lot for me and others in CRR that interviewers see [the organization] on our resumes and get interested in what we worked on,” Gutierrez says, recalling his engine development internship with Honda. “For most interviewers, they’ve never seen it on a resume before, and they get interested in how this experience helped us develop all these different skills that apply across so many fields.”
Students create a variety of robots, ranging from three to 30 pounds, and a vast range of designs. Similar to a choose-your-own-adventure experience, each design decision determines the skill, techniques, tactics and overall performance of the robot.
As workshop co-directors, Wright and Gutierrez can sometimes anticipate who created which robot based on the robot’s design.
“Some people are perfectionists, and you can see it in the precision of their robots. Some teams just want to have fun and end up with a swinging hammer on the robot because ‘Why not?’” Gutierrez says. “So much personality comes through, even in the name of function.”
Wright adds, “When you get a lot of very creative people working in the grid, you get a lot of different outlooks. That momentum leads to a lot of interdisciplinary learning for people.”
Beyond learning robotics, members can get guidance on classes, career goals and personal challenges. In addition, experienced robotics teams can establish a legacy through their creative team names, performance history in robot combat competitions and the mentorship they provide to fellow students.
Marisa Valdivia, a mechanical engineering junior and CRR vice president, says that having students from different backgrounds has been a major asset.
“We accept anyone from any background, so we end up with such a diverse group of people,” Valdivia says. “I’ve seen a lot of members build confidence with their communication skills because they’ve met so many different people and learned how to work with them.”
This month, CRR hosted the Sun Devil Smackdown, an internal competition featuring one-on-one matches for combat robots battling it out in the arena to win the title of champion.
The smackdown is based on a token challenge system in which each team gets several tokens to challenge and wager so it can compete at its own pace, instead of a bracket competition wherein some bots may compete only once. This format inspired CRR’s largest competition to date, involving 23 competitors and four guest bots engaging in 50 matches.
CRR president and mechanical engineering junior Mackenzie Milczarek says she is proud of the enthusiasm and sportsmanship displayed at the event as teams assisted each other and gleefully strategized repairs as they watched their bots being smashed.
“While combat robotics is destructive by nature, I’ve never seen any bad sportsmanship,” Milczarek says. “Everyone is willing to lend their opponents a hand, and I was glad to see that we had developed a supportive environment.”
As bots progress through various battles, the team must constantly adapt based on accumulated damage and the threat of their competitors’ attacks. Aiden Valeri, a mechanical engineering first-year student and driver of the winning bot, Wilbur, attributes its success to his team’s planning and ability to adapt.
“We were constantly brainstorming throughout the day, and it paid off,” Valeri says.
Throughout its day of battles, Wilbur gained increased wheel diameter and added treads. The team also instructed Valeri to drive strategically to protect the robot’s weakest side to force opponents to engage with its weaponry.
“Whether you are already into BattleBots or not, I would highly recommend Combat Ready Robotics to anyone with a passion for STEAM fields or destruction,” Valeri says.
“While designing and building your very own robot, you learn how to use several tools, basic material sciences and design in CAD — all of which can be used in your day-to-day life outside of CRR,” he adds. “After you get the hang of things, it becomes extremely difficult to not get involved more with the hobby.”
Smash, repair, repeat
Members say the robots are a labor of love and they enjoy having tangible results to show for their efforts. Because the robots frequently risk destruction, members develop a positive outlook toward the notion of failure. A loss shows room for improvement and future success instead of past mistakes.
“Destruction isn’t bad,” Hecht says. “During our last competition, I split someone’s robot and showed a weakness they overlooked. So now that person is redesigning the robot to make it better. He’s going to come back even stronger.”
A defining trait of CRR is its endless capacity to support and encourage excitement. The organization’s community thrives on enthusiasm throughout the process, starting from a robot’s conception and beyond its elimination as parts get reused for new bots.
“You get to be excited about being an engineer in CRR,” Hecht says. “It can’t be helped.”