Where Robot Gladiators Fight to the Death

TV shows and video games are capitalizing on our desire to see mechanical bots destroy each other with all the drama of a great UFC fight.

12.13.16 6:02 AM ET

Humans box, wrestle, and knock each other senseless, much to the delight of audiences. Last year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) drew 2.75 million viewers for a live event and 3 million people tuned into the Premier Boxing Championship debut. Around 1.6 million people even watched WrestleMania 31. While some would rather watch Weekend at Bernie’s 4 than subject themselves to such spectacles of violence (and sometimes camp), since the gladiatorial days of ancient Rome, humankind has celebrated fighting and marveled at what the human body can dish out and take.

But what if the fighters aren’t human?

In 1994, Robot Wars debuted as a live event in San Francisco. Four years later, the BBC began broadcasting the show by the same name. Most of us are familiar with the premise: people build remote-controlled fighting robots equipped with spikes, hammers, axes, or some other weaponry, and then the robots throw down cage-match style. A victorious bot wins by immobilizing its opponent for 10 seconds, pushing it into a hazard area on the floor, or knocking it into a trench. The robots defend themselves from attacks by dodging or shielding, and many can right themselves if knocked askew.  

Robot Wars drew over 6 million viewers during its initial UK run. The BBC commissioned 155 episodes and the show aired in 26 countries around the world and the U.S. broadcast the series on TNN and Nickelodeon (what could be cuter than kids’ robots fighting?) This year, the BBC breathed new life into the show with episodes including group battles—the premiere drew 2 million viewers.  

Meanwhile, Battlebots debuted on Comedy Central—an interesting choice that hints at humor in the endeavor—in 2000 and aired for two years; ABC recently revived the series. And let’s not forget Robogames, or the Robolympics, which has everything from robot fighting to robot soccer to Kung-Fu androids. Smaller scale versions of these shows take place all over, from MIT’s Maker Faire to Bot Bash (that’s right—you can get robots to fight each other for your next birthday party!)

The fact that robots feel no pain allows people to guiltlessly cheer as a saw blade slices through metal. And while we might have a favorite robot with a wicked build and paint job, we also celebrate for the humans who built and control them. These contests represent a union of human and robotic capabilities, and that partnership evolves with robotic technology.

The SyFy show Robot Combat League (RLC), which premiered in 2013, is what you get when you breed American Gladiators with Robot Wars. In the spirit of mecha sci-fi, which features gigantic robots often piloted by humans, each RLC robot has two human drivers—one who controls the robot’s feet and one who punches and blocks while wearing an exo-suit linked to the robot. It’s kind of like playing Wii Sports, but instead of controlling a figure on the screen, the jockey controls the robot in the arena.

Two robots duke it out on center stage while their four human operators pull the strings, providing viewers with people to root for in addition to robots. The human involvement in RLC gives them the illusion of being massive fighting machines: “You’re all about to become superhuman,” the host tells the competitors as they walk into the arena for the first time. The appeal is obvious, especially given the lack of pain. The robots are tethered to a bar that helps them balance—bipedal robots are notoriously unstable—and injects the hydraulic fluid necessary to keep them running. The fluid also mimics blood—when a robot gets injured, blue stuff sprays out dramatically (and laughably).

Now, the concept of fighting robots has evolved yet again, this time with the help of augmented reality, the technology behind Pokémon Go. Augmented reality (AR) superimposes digital images over real environments, merging the virtual and actual worlds, which opens up new possibilities for robot battles.

Reach Robotics recently released a game called MekaMon, which is part Robot Wars and part video game. Players can pit customizable, real-life robots against one another and hold contests the conventional way, or players can use AR capabilities to direct robots to fight aliens. As with Pokémon Go, players use their phones’ cameras to generate a map specific to their location, which is then infiltrated by enemies that the user can vanquish by controlling the robot on the screen. In real life, it looks like the robot lurches down a hallway or hits the deck randomly, but on the screen the robot charges bad guys and ducks fire from a laser gun. Victorious robots do a happy dance, while others “die” with their legs splayed flat on the ground. The game includes numerous story arcs, environments, and characters, as well as add-ons for the physical robot that are detected and incorporated into the game by the software.

Humans’ fascination with fighting robots continues to grow. Perhaps that’s attributable to our taste for increasingly sophisticated and varied entertainment, or perhaps these battles hold a glimpse of the future. Drones, as well as surveillance and supply robots, have been used in warfare for a while, and infantry robots are on the way. Twenty-first-century warfare specialist P.S. Singer believes that because of robots, “mankind’s 5,000 year monopoly on the fighting of war is breaking down in our very lifetime.” Among other things, battling robots may condition humans to the changing landscape of war. Or maybe this is robots’ way of training themselves for the uprising, and for the day when they’ll remotely control us.