MegaBots Are the Fighting Robots of the Future: a Q&A with Brinkley Warren

On the epic U.S. vs. Japan showdown and inventing a sport we know only from sci-fi.

What is it, exactly, that makes giant robots fighting other giant robots so damn sexy? A partial list of robot-on-robot violence reads like yearbook photo of sci-fi and anime: the Transformers cartoon and cartoonish movies, GoBots, Pacific Rim, BattleTech, Real Steel, Mobile Suit Gundam — old heads might even remember Robot Jox. Hell, you probably shouldn’t even read this story without listening to the opening theme to Grendizer.

Practically since humans bothered to imagine robots, we wanted to see them clobber each other to bits. The founders of the robotics company MegaBots are stepping up to lead us into an era of robotic rock ‘em and sock ‘em, the future that your 6-year-old self has been advocating all along.

Engineering students Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein founded MegaBots in Boston in May of 2014. They soon added co-founder Brinkley Warren to the mix when they shipped out west to San Francisco in early 2015. There, the trio had a vision — and set out to build toward total mech-suit mayhem, in the form of the Mk. I, a gigantic robot armed with an array of paintball-flinging weaponry. But it just wasn’t enough. Soon they were hard at work on a bigger bot, one they imagined equipped with stronger, more serious firepower. The 12,000-pound, two-seat mech-robot Mk. II was born. Now, it needs a fight.

On June 30th, the MegaBots team challenged a Japanese firm called Suidobashi Heavy Industries, which happens to have its own battle-ready robot called KURATAS, to a battle for world robot domination. Suidobashi accepted within the week. Next July, the fight commences. Since the announcement, MegaBots launched a Kickstarter campaign and teamed up with various tech companies and sponsors to make the MK. II battle-ready.

With the Kickstarter campaign mostly funded, I chatted with MegaBots co-founder Brinkley Warren about massive mechanical hardware and where it could lead.

Where did this crazy idea start? What made you want to build a gigantic fighting robot?

MegaBots began in the imagination of each of the founders. It’s been a childhood dream to bring the giant robots of movies and video games to life as the most epic form of sports entertainment in history. Technology is now at a point where it’s finally possible. Our main motivation is to build the sports league of the future.

Is MegaBots, Inc. working on any other projects or are you focusing solely on building the Mk. II?

MegaBots is the full-time job of us three co-founders.

The Mk. II will be the robot doing the fighting, but what was the MK-I from? Another robot battle?

The Mk. I was more of a prototype to demonstrate that some high-level robotics principles could be done at a larger scale, and the Mk. II premiered this year at Makerfaire. We built the Mk.II to prove to the world that we can actually build these things, and to prove to the world that the MegaBots sport is coming sooner rather than later.

Why go with the kitschy America-centric slogan “Onwards America” for the fight, just for the competitive spirit of it?

We are only the second team in the history of mankind to have a giant, human-piloted combat robot — the other team is in Japan. So there’s a great deal of pride on the line for us in this first duel, because we will literally go down in history as either the American team that wins the first duel, or the American team that loses the first duel. It’s similar to the Olympics because of the global nature of this sport that we’re building.

In the same way that an Olympian is representing an entire nation, so are we! We are a younger generation of Americans who maybe view our patriotism a bit differently than older generations. With our challenge video we wanted to be the Steven Colbert of giant fighting robot sports.

MegaBot Co-Pilots Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein.

We’re a Silicon Valley startup — a bunch of mega-bros in a garage making the ultimate childhood toys a real thing and wanting really badly to prove to the world that this can happen and that we can do this. Our aesthetic is purely American and I think it’s a pretty authentic take on what patriotism really means to our generation. We’re proud to be Americans, but we’re also keenly aware of how ridiculous America can be sometimes, and how nutty it must seem to foreigners. We seriously don’t take ourselves too seriously, but Japan better take our robot seriously or the fight will be over as fast as you can sing the classic “I’m American,” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Seriously.

Fighting robots are definitely rooted in pop culture. Which movies, comics, or other kinds of pop culture inspired you to make this idea a reality?

We grew up playing video games like MechWarrior, Starcraft, and other robot games. When I was a kid I remember watching ExoSquad cartoons and buying Exosquad toys, and we’re all huge fans of science-fiction franchises like The Matrix, Star Wars, Terminator, and Aliens.

Besides the paintball cannon, what other weapons are you planning on adding to the Mk. II?

A giant chainsaw and dual gatling guns that fire out of eagle heads mounted on the shoulder of the robot. Those are just some of the weapons we have planned — plus a flame-thrower cigar coming out of the robot’s mouth.

The proposed final design of the Mk. II.

What advantages will the Mk. II have over the Japanese robot?

If America supports our Kickstarter we’ll probably have advantages in speed, balance, and agility for sure. We don’t know what upgrades the Japanese team has planned so we’re not sure if our weapons and armor will be comparable or which team will have the advantage there.

Where will the fight take place and who will determine the winner?

In a neutral location — not America or Japan.

Hopefully the fight will be determined by which robot is destroyed, which robot falls over or stops functioning. Hopefully it will be obvious to viewers which robot wins and which one loses.

How did you hook up with the other tech companies that you’re seeking to help you out like Howe & Howe, IHMC Robotics, and FonCo Creative Services?

We’re really grateful that so many great innovators have committed to helping Team USA in this giant robot duel. Some of our partners we had existing relationships with, and some reached out to us after we challenged Japan.

You’re over halfway there, so do you think you’ll meet your Kickstarter goal? If you don’t reach it is the project over?

Yes, we’ll meet the Kickstarter goal. We really need to hit our stretch goals to maximize our chances of victory against Japan. We won’t back down — a big part about being an entrepreneur is having determination and tenacity and persistence. If we don’t succeed the first time we’ll just learn from our mistakes and try again in a different way. That’s what we’re already doing.

We had a failed Kickstarter in 2014, but we learned from it and we didn’t quit. We’re gonna keep getting after it and working hard, and if we keep doing that then we’ll win the duel and make history, and everybody who gives to this Kickstarter campaign will be a part of history in the making. Buying a MegaBots shirt on our Kickstarter page is probably the easiest way to become an American legend. Do it!

Are you going to segment the Kickstarter campaign: The $500,000 will be for the track base, then you’ll do another campaign for the $750,000 weapons upgrades, then another for the $1 million balancing algorithm, and so on?

No. Beyond $500k we have stretch goals that we hope to hit in the coming weeks.

In general, what kinds of advantages will the Kickstarter add-ons give to the MK-II?

With the support of the American people, our Kickstarter upgrades will allow our robot to be prepared for hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese. Currently the Mk.II is designed for long-range combat only. We will also have more speed, more agility, more balance, more control, better long-range combat, better safety systems, better armor, and it will look like it came out of a Hollywood science-fiction movie.

How could you see massive robots fighting like this plausibly turning into an actual sport? There’s already BattleBots, but this would be on a much bigger scale.

This duel is the first match in a brand new global sport. Our long-term vision of MegaBots is to create the most compelling live action sports league in human history. We’re blending the technology of F1 with the fights of UFC, to create a new sport with millions of fans in stadiums around the world cheering on their favorite pilots and robots in epic robot battles.

The MegaBot League will allow countries from around the world to field their own team and compete for the ultimate in human-piloted robot glory. Sports unite humanity behind the ideals of fun, sportsmanship, camaraderie, competition, excellence, grace, and glory. I hope MegaBots will add innovation and STEM education to these ideals. If a kid grows up believing that engineering is just as cool as playing football or basketball, that’s a huge win for the future of humanity. MegaBots will accelerate robotics innovation, no doubt.

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