A Somerville startup thinks robot duels will be the next big sport

MegaBots co-founders Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein, and Andrew Stroup, pictured outside the Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, with a bot in the background.
MegaBots co-founders Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein, and Andrew Stroup, pictured outside the Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, with a bot in the background.

What better week than Halloween to launch a crowdfunding campaign to build 15-foot tall battle bots with cannons for arms?

A trio of techies are hoping to raise $1.8 million for MegaBots, a Somerville startup that envisions a new sports league featuring humanoid robots with actual humans at the controls. And those willing to donate $2,500 to the project will get a chance to engage in combat — sometime in 2016.

The robots made a splashy debut earlier this month at New York Comic Con, but they’re far from fully functional. When completed, they’ll not only walk on two sequoia-sized legs, but shoot paint-filled projectiles at one another. “As projectiles hit their targets, armor plates shatter and explode and computers tally critical hits to the robot’s limbs and torso,” the startup’s Kickstarter page explains. “As more and more hits are taken, robots start to limp, joints start to seize, weapons start to jam, and after enough damage, limbs are completely blown off. The last MegaBot standing wins!” The algorithms that allow the bots to balance and walk on two legs come from Andreas Hofmann of MIT’s Biomechatronics Lab.

The startup’s motto: “We are making the world a more epic place, one giant robot at a time.”

For Gui Cavalcanti, CEO of MegaBots and a founder of the Somerville shared workspace Artisan’s Asylum, this isn’t the first giant robot project he has proposed on Kickstarter. Two years ago, he successfully raised $97,817 for a spider-like robot called Stompy. (I put $20 into that project as a supporter, receiving a rubber wristband that reads “Friend of Robots — Do Not Terminate.”) But while that project offered backers the chance to ride or drive Stompy in mid-2013, or donate something to be crushed, Stompy still isn’t finished.

The problem, says Cavalcanti, is that Stompy was an all-volunteer project, with a goal of open-sourcing all the software and hardware designs so they could be used by others. “It has never really been someone’s full-time job, and we didn’t include any salaries in the Kickstarter campaign,” he says. The team building Stompy gets together between one and three days a week, and that robot is “mostly assembled” now, Cavalcanti says. (Updates are on the project’s Facebook page.)

MegaBots is set up as “a real company,” Cavalcanti says. “The lesson from Stompy was that to do a professional job, it needs to be people’s day jobs, you have to pay people’s salaries, and buy real hardware.”

I’m eager to see both of the big, scary mechs take their first steps (and wonder if we’ll eventually see another Kickstarter campaign to cover the requisite liability insurance)…

Here’s a company-produced video of their trip to New York Comic Con:

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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