Big boys’ toys

Two young Henderson County inventors are taking their science and math knowledge to a higher frequency, getting down to the nuts and bolts of the first annual Southern Assault robot-combat gala — a new feature of this year’s North Carolina Apple Festival.

The violent sporting spectacle — a sort of virtual gladiator’s spree — is also training for the two boys, who aspire to design jets and spacecrafts. Reid Sanders, 13, and his 12-year-old friend, James Hyde, designed and built a 50-pound robot, which they’ll take turns operating this weekend, competing against people of various ages in their machine’s lightweight division.

They named their robot Macrophage, after a term for human protection against infection. Macrophage is a three-foot-long robot with separate motors and stick controls for forward and reverse. Drill motors spin two wheels, and the bot’s armor is made of bullet-proof Lexan polycarbonate plastic glass. (Lexan can also be found in arena walls, to shield people from flying debris.)

Building and operating the robots involves “mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, electronics, kinetics, and hydraulics,” notes Chris McVey, president of the non-profit group South Eastern Combat Robotics, which is sponsoring Southern Assault.

In building Macrophage, the boys tested and adjusted their robot, replacing too-tall casters that forced wheels to spin. They learned about electrical frequencies, wiring, and how to calculate how fast the robot would go with a given motor’s power (sponsors donated $2000 to $3000 in parts for the project).

Guiding the boys is Steve Butcher, 18, a N.C. School of Science and Mathematics grad studying engineering in college. Butcher praises his proteges: “They picked up technical aspects right away, and figured how to do it all on their own.” The two home-schooled friends got into combat machinery three years ago, adding nails to radio-run cars. This year, they worked four months on Macrophage — up to six hours daily. But a Southern Assault frontrunner, The Messenger, has a blade on top that spins outward in all directions. “It tears robots to pieces,” Sanders says. Both boys wince.

But upsets do happen — a teen can beat a NASA engineer, says SECR’s McVey.

Southern Assault brings 64 remote-controlled robots from 17 states to Hendersonville’s Jackson Park all day Saturday and Sunday. The double-elimination tourney — made up of three-minute duels and five-minute “rumbles” similar to those on cable TV’s “Battle Bots” — determines which is “Toughest Robot in the Southeast.” Robots try to dismantle and immobilize each other. Some are equipped with heavy armor. Others zip up to 30 miles per hour, or roll like a snake. Weapons include saws, sledgehammers, smashing wheels, or stomping legs. The local boys’ robot has a foot-long spike, to rip out other robots’ inner workings. Most menacing are “flippers” and “spinners.” The newest mechanized bully is the pneumatic flipper, which runs on compressed air, Butcher says. Like a spatula, it lifts and flips a foe like a pancake — or hurls it up to four feet. Parts bust on impact, or after several bounces. A spinner’s diamond-tipped blades slash metal like butter, turning months of cherished work into instant scrap.

War games

These high-tech robots put kids’ robots of yesteryear to shame– toys like Rock’em-Sock’em Robots or those battery-run robots that fired spring-loaded plastic rockets. Craig Fearnside, the local festival organizer who brought in this new event, had such toys. His son Zach, 6, plays with a basic $20 battle robot.

The field of robotics is growing in industry and in the military — robots’ missions have included probing for trapped miners and for alleged terrorists in caves, according to Fearnside.

Their recreational counterparts aren’t allowed to electrocute, nor to shoot flames, fluid or projectiles. Immobilizing the opponent seals automatic victory in competition — otherwise, the battle is decided by points given for aggression, tactics and inflicting damage. A classic tactical matchup — as in boxing or wrestling — pits strong, slow maulers against quick, elusive bots that get in more-numerous, but softer, hits.

As in stock-car racing, the sport’s phases include design, construction, marketing for sponsors, driving, and fixing damage. Contestants are guaranteed 20 minutes between fights to repair or replace parts, including switching modular weapons, says Chris Hannold, who sponsors a battle-robot tourney in Salisbury, N.C.

Inner rewards, according to bot enthusiasts, span creation to victory. “It’s fun seeing it come together,” Sanders says. “It’s gratifying when it does what you built it to do,” adds Butcher (a friend rewired his first robot, which smoked and promptly expired).

Hannold, who’s authored an upcoming book about the sport, views the games as nothing less than a kind of theater of the gods. “Competition gives you an adrenaline rush when you’re about to attack,” he enthuses. “It’s like gladiators in the arena, only no one gets hurt. You feel as if you’re the one attacking, because you put so much of your time and energy into your machine. It’s like an extension of yourself that is truly immortal.”

But Sanders and Hyde have modest goals for their inaugural competition. “It’s great to win some matches, but nice to come out with a working robot,” Sanders says. And Hyde adds, “It’s not fun if we get massacred. But it’s a learning opportunity.”

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