June 19, 2019

Bots Prepare for Battle

UMass Amherst alumnus engineers a robot for gladiatorial combat

An aluminum chassis that can make a combat robot impervious to being flipped and a weaponized whirling 48-inch-long blade spattered with red paint, distinguish Bloodsport, the brainchild of Justin Marple ’17, a software engineer and graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Engineering, and his team.

Marple has been selected—well, his robot has—to compete on the Discovery Channel’s Battlebots. Bloodsport, created by Marple and his team Bots ‘n’ Stuff, will battle its opponents on television beginning this June.

Battlebots, which features gladiatorial combat between remote-controlled robots, first aired in 2000, and averages 3.5 million viewers per episode. Marple, Bloodsport, and the Bots ‘n’ Stuff team traveled to the April filming in Long Beach, California.

As an undergraduate majoring in electrical and computer engineering, Marple created maze-solving robots before moving on to engineer combat robots with Bots ‘n’ Stuff, a competitive robotics organization now decorated with several world titles in VEX Robotics. The team had experience building several Roomba-size combat robots, but Bloodsport is the largest by far: 32 inches in diameter, with a 48-inch-long blade, and weighing in at 250 pounds.

Contestants qualify for Battlebots by the functionality and charisma of their design, and also for their commitment to see their project all the way through the competition. To Marple, the opportunity was exhilarating: “When the producer calls you, that’s just surreal,” he says. “It’s so awesome.”

Robot battle

Bloodsport clashes with Lucky.

Although their robots are vying for survival or destruction, competing teams on Battlebots enjoy a camaraderie. Marple reports that the teams will share parts and tips with each other. “Everybody wants the show to do well,” he explains.

When it comes to parts, many of Bloodsport’s are custom fabricated, including its blade, which not only needed to be individually forged but also specially treated with heat in order to withstand (and cause) damage. Finding fabricators to create the precise parts, and negotiating quotes from them, involves a lot of unseen legwork.

Another unseen fact of competitive sport is finding sponsors. Creating a combat robot is not cheap: Bloodsport cost $30,000 to build and transport to Long Beach, including its backup and replacement parts. In addition to the UMass Amherst College of Engineering, Bots ‘n’ Stuff found sponsors with Big Blue Saw, the University of Utah, and Fingertech Robotics. But timing demanded that the team pony up their own money before the sponsorship funds arrived. Credit cards came into play.

But after the hair-raising process of waiting for cash to come through, and thousands of hours of mental and physical labor by the team, the red robot with its “gore”-splattered blades, was more than ready for prime time. Marple asked the producer if the paint on Bloodsport’s blades was “too much.” “Are you kidding?” came the reply. “This is television!”

Watch Bloodsport’s progress through the summer on the Discovery Channel.