Basement bots battle, dance to death

Prominently schnozed robo-fighter Somervillain pummeled its way undefeated Sunday through the brackets of the Autonomous Fighting Robots competition, with a vicious arsenal of pirouettes, sashays, and drunken head-on collisions with the wall.

The beast sat caged in the darkness of the Middle East Downstairs yesterday afternoon waiting for its final opponent, the Bunker Hillbilly. Somervillain’s googly eyes stared out like a chameleon’s, cautiously ignoring the adversary that sat directly ahead.

The two robots would faced off in the ultimate duel of the afternoon’s robotic cage match, one of a handful of events wrapping up the Cambridge Science Festival, a ten day, city-wide celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Before the final round each team made minor tweaks.

“We’re adding more awesome,” cracked Somervillain’s Aron Levy.

“Not really,” Levy’s teammate, Sean Murray, assured me.

Bunker Hillbilly’s team performed a complete overhaul at 2:30 a.m. that morning due to a downed laser cutter, team member Tim Butterworth explained. The original design called for a spinning blade, some 12 inches in diameter, that would surround the entire body. But the setback meant the team now hoped only for some kind of movement. They straightened out a couple parts to improve their odds.

The Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville hosted the event that garnered sponsorship from area companies like Mathworks, Autodesk, and the Colorado-based Sparkfun Electronics. The basement of the Middle East filled with a wide range of spectators: adults chaperoning bewildered nerds-in-training, matriculated college nerds, bona fide adults nerds, and nerd supporters and allies. A fog machine caught swirling rainbow lights that panned across the stage while a sexy British computer voice announced bot names before each bout, each pugilists offensive and defensive features, and hashtags for the event.

Onlookers ogled with abandon, anticipating flying sheet metal and sparks: Somervillain v. Bunker Hillbilly. To. The. Death.

But alas.

“Some parts were kind of disappointing when the robots malfunctioned and didn’t move,” said Jerome Jacobs, 12.

Kids have a way of capturing with brutal honesty the certain je ne sais quoi of an event. With his friend Eric, Jerome had squeezed his way through the crowd, finding court-side seats where they could see every detail of each battle. But Jerome was right. The “battles” resembled more avant-garde performance art than metallic mutinous mayhem.

Back in the arena for the final match, Somervillain charged furiously with its rhino snout sniffing for the Bunker Hillbilly. It tornadoed in place, sensors scanning. Meanwhile the Bunker Hillbilly sat in plain view, cowering in the corner while Somervillain raced around like a postmodern Elmer Fudd. Team members with deep seated knowledge of computer science and engineering screamed at their bots hoping maybe the machines had learned voice commands since being switched on.

In their defense, competitors received only two weeks to design, build, and program an autonomous robot (using Simulink and Arduino for those of you counting) that would fight — in theory — to the death in an enclosed plexiglass box. And despite Jerome’s disappointment, he and the rest of the crowd fixated on the arena for every match, waiting.

In the final moments of the last duel the Bunker Hillbilly finally unfroze. The crowd erupted. The Somervillain eventually found its target and slowly drove it to a wall, then ever so slightly lifted a small edge of the Bunker Hillbilly off the arena floor as time expired: pandemonium.

“WHO DO YOU LOVE!?” shouted Levy at the top of his lungs to the crowd.

After the final battle a majority of spectators emptied out to the overcast brightness of Sunday before the emcee even had a chance to announce an official winner. But everyone knew that slightest lift, though not so high as the Hancock nor far as Falmouth, would serve.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at
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