US and Japan going to war with giant, rocket-firing manned robots

18 Aug 2015

The MegaBot MkII debuted in May 2015 at Maker Faire San Mateo, where the robot destroyed a junk car with giant paintballs in front of packed audiences – image via S.N. Jacobson

Storm clouds are brewing above old foes Japan and the US, as Kuratas and MegaBot MkII get ready for the weirdest bout of nationalistic pride I can remember — international robot wars.

However, unlike the Robot Wars we loved for so long on the BBC, this time they are bigger, stronger, more agile and are manned.

Because that’s exactly what the world needs.

Suidobashi Heavy Industries created the 13ft Kuratas a few years back and it’s very impressive. Weighing in at 9,000lbs, the single-seater robot has twin Gatling guns, a hyper-advanced targeting system and heads-up display.


Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Curates

Last year, MegaBots responded in kind, creating a 12,000lbs, two-man, petrol-powered 15ft beast to help bring the company’s vision of giant robot paintball battles to life.

I say responded in kind, but in truth these were developed entirely devoid of any competition.

That was until last month, when the three-man team behind MegaBots – Guy Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein and Brinkley Warren – took the bizarre and entertaining step of calling out Kuratas for a duel.

It seemed a little tongue-in-cheek and entertainingly cheesy, but then a couple of days later the Japanese company responded, expressing its surprise but accepting the challenge.

There was one condition though. Noting that the MkII was “so very American” with its huge exterior and giant guns, Kuratas creator Kogoro Kurata demanded the fight include actual combat.

So now MegaBots is crowdfunding for the money it will take to help catch up with a robot far more polished and agile for a battle in one year.

Crowdfunding the right way

Crowdfunding could be a telling factor, actually, by both driving interest as well as allowing MegaBots to raise the funds needed to catch up with its Japanese foe.

It could, theoretically, be the key creator of an odd engineering dream sport – the UFC of giant robot fighting.

“We’re building the science fiction sports league of the future, one giant robot fight at a time,” said Cavalcanti, MegaBots co-founder and CEO.

Cavalcanti’s background is in mechanical and systems engineering. In the past, he has worked on high-speed, high-force, hydraulic balancing robots with Boston Dynamics.

He wanted to build robots straight out of video games (Mechwarrior and BattleTech) and, once he left Boston Dynamics, got to work. “It’s been all downhill since then!”


(l-r) Brinkley Warren, Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein in front of the MegaBot MkII

The Kickstarter campaign is regimented quite clearly, with each partner’s key role listed in detail.

The likes of IHMC – robotics experts that competed in the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge – NASA, Howe & Howe and FonCo will get on board to make sure the MkII can move around, safely seat a pilot and look extremely cool.

I had a quick couple of worries when hearing of this, namely the balancing of such a huge machine, given the less-than-sure footing of robots in the DARPA challenge. Cavalcanti, though, was quick to reassure.

“The robots IHMC worked on [in DARPA] are humanoid, and are trying to do one of the hardest mechanical tasks possible – staying upright on two feet.

“The MkII is on a wide tread base, and the ‘balancing’ task is essentially turning the MkII into the world’s largest Segway.

“While this is difficult, it’s nowhere near as difficult as walking, and it draws on exactly the same math and technological infrastructure.”

Sting like a charging rhinoceros

He claims that a better comparison than those robots that kept falling over would be those based on belts, rather than legs, with IHMC fully confident that it can deliver.

“We have decades of experience working with dynamic balancing robots, and when we’re done with the MkII, it’s going to float like a butterfly and sting like a charging rhinoceros,” said the company.

You can’t beat a good soundbite.


Concept of the fully upgraded MegaBot MkII

Another concern I suggested was the problem of a mismatch. How can either team know that this won’t end in a few seconds when superiority suddenly becomes more obvious?

“We’re very conscious of this,” said Cavalcanti.

A money matter

“Their asking price for the Kuratas on Amazon is US$1.3m, so we feel like raising US$1.5m for the American robot when it’s had around a quarter of the development time of the Kuratas will help level the playing field.

“They have a beautiful, well-engineered robot that we’re catching up to fast. We’re working with them to develop a rule set for the duel that will allow for a level playing field, and intend to announce such a rule set jointly.”

The ultimate aim – other than a mammoth robotic fistfight, of course – remains a live-action robot sports league.


“We’re hoping that it can be as soon as one year after the duel with Kuratas, after we’ve had a chance to work through some of the ‘kinks’ of getting this sport off the ground.”

The venue is TBC and the funding search – seeking at least US$500,000 – has only just begun. So for now, check out the team’s Kickstarter campaign and follow this story more closely.

“This is what the world has dreamt about for 20 years,” said co-founder Oehrein. “MegaBots is taking all of the cutting-edge robotics research that’s been happening behind closed doors, and busting it through the wall in the most epic entertainment phenomenon of our generation.”

Still, it’s no Matilda.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic