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A giant robot comes to Oakland

on December 17, 2015

Science fiction movies have introduced us to gadgets we have all wished were real: Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber from Star Wars and Marty McFly’s hoverboard from Back to the Future.

They don’t exist. But three fans of the large walking war machines featured in the fictional universe of BattleTech have turned one fantasy machine into a reality.

Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein and Brinkley Warren are co-founders of MegaBots Inc. in Oakland. They moved from Boston in late 2014 and, in five months, built the Mark II, the first-ever giant piloted fighting robot in the United States.

The MegaBots team said they were inspired by science fiction movies as well as video games like Day 1 Studios’ MechAssault, which lets users get a sense of what it feels like to control a giant robot.

Warren said the team spent last year brainstorming ideas. Once they realized the technology to make robots was accessible they decided to try to build one. “The technology is possible, and for the first time it’s something that we can turn into a reality,” Warren said. “The ah-ha moment was really just going for it.”

It helped that Cavalcanti had experience as a mechanical engineer at Boston Dynamics, an engineering and robotics design company that is known for building the BigDog for the U.S. military along with anthropomorphic robots like the PETMAN and Atlas. The BigDog was designed to serve as a robotic pack mule to accompany soldiers in terrain too rough for conventional vehicles. The PETMAN is a bipedal device constructed for testing chemical protection suits, while the Atlas was designed for a variety of search and rescue tasks.

Cavalcanti, now the lead engineer, worked with Oehrlein, the lead electrical and controls engineer, to build the Mark II. Warren, who handles MegaBots’ business development was the strategist.

The robot stands 15 feet tall and is made of green and yellow steel, weighing in at 12,000 pounds. It’s equipped with a blaster that shoots custom sized giant paint balls and has a set of Caterpillar skid steer treads to move around with at a whopping 2.5 miles per hour.

It takes two people, a driver and shooter, to pilot the robot using the robotic operating system developed by Willow Garage. The driver can drive the robot around while the gunner controls the arms and fires off the pneumatic paintball gun.  

It took MegaBots nearly five months from design to completion; Warren said the team worked up to 18-hour shifts. The team had a sponsorship from Autodesk worth about $175,000.

The Mark II made its debut at the Maker Faire in San Mateo in May, where they won an Editors’ Choice award. Warren said they had some positive feedback from the press, too.

“It was really rewarding because … you spend your time working to make this big idea actually come to life,” Warren said.

Shortly after Makers Faire, MegaBots was contacted by many production companies and famous producers in Hollywood who were interested in investing in the company. But Warren said he declined. “They wanted to take all of our rights and basically take over the company completely,” Warren said.

That’s when they came up with the idea to fight Kuratas, the only other BattleMech in the world, made by Suidobashi Heavy Industry in Japan. Kuratas became the world’s first rideable giant robot in 2012.

Warren and the crew got Suidobashi Heavy’s attention by dishing out a challenge to Kurata in a promotional video. The Japanese company accepted in a video response of its own.

The battle is set for next year, but the specifics about when or where are still undecided.  Warren said they are still working out the battle details, including the rules. Warren said safety will be a priority, so they plan to protect the battle arena with baseball-style netting strong enough to stop the massive paintballs the Mark II shoots.

MegaBots launched a KickStarter campaign in August to help build a number of upgrades for the Mark II, like heavy-duty armor plating, new hydraulics to handle heavier armor and firepower, increasing the robot’s top speed and adding a new power unit. They raised $554,592, which was well past their $550,000 goal.

“I do not know the capabilities of the upgraded Kurata,” Warren said. “It’s a big mystery as to what the Japanese team will bring to the duel, but I’m sure it will be awesome.”

Now that MegaBots has upgrades in the works, Warren said the team wants to start a league for human-piloted giant robot combat. Before that, they have to build more robots, since they only have one so far. To do that, Warren said they’re looking to entice world-class engineers into working full-time for the company.

“If you’re an engineer, would you rather go work at Google and build a car? Or would you rather go work at MegaBots and build a giant mech … and then go battle other countries in the most epic new sport of our age?” Warren asked.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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