Last month, a group of American inventors challenged a team of Japanese engineers to a giant robot duel. Japan accepted the challenge, and with the date of the duel now slated for summer 2016, Team USA (aka MegaBots Inc.) wants the public's money to make it sure it doesn't get tossed on the scrapheap in the first round. The company has set up a Kickstarter to raise funds for an upgrade to its robot, setting $500,000 as its minimum target and adding stretch goals of up to $1.5 million for extra melee weapons, balancing algorithms, and even new life support systems, to be designed in collaboration with NASA.
"We want to build the most patriotic robot ever."
The ultimate aim is to construct the "People's Robot," say the company's co-founders Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein, and Brinkely Warren. "If we tried to take money from investors or from any other source it would be like we would have to do this, and this, and that, and make it look like the following brands and so on," Cavalcanti tells The Verge. "We want to build the most patriotic robot ever and we’re going to be silly with it in ways that make investors a little uncomfortable."
He adds that while previous iterations of MegaBots' robot were put together on a "shoestring budget," this time the team wants to go all-out to ensure that the project lives up to its hype and delivers the sort of spectacle people want to see. "We’ve assembled this team of super high-end technology companies," says Cavalcanti. "This is their full time job, they are literally the best in their field [...] so we need to be able to pay them — they don’t just do this stuff for free."
Concept art for the fully-upgraded Mk.II. (MegaBots)
After the base level target of $500,000 for new treads, power units, and armor, the team is looking to hit four stretch goals for the Mk. II, each costing an additional $250,000. The first is for extra weaponry, the second for balancing algorithms, the third for life support systems, and the fourth to give the robot a "Hollywood-grade artistic look and feel." As well as hopefully working with NASA for life support, the team has plans to collaborate with IHMC Robotics (which came second place in this year's DARPA Robotics Challenge) to develop a self-balancing control system. "That's going to basically transform us into a 12,000 pound, 15-foot tall Segway," says Cavalcanti.
"It's this really cool opportunity to bring industries together."
The team says that although the project's running theme of "Fuck Yeah, America" started as marketing tool for the initial challenge video (which was published just before July 4th), it's now become a serious endeavor. "We have all these amazing partners who are leading their fields and willing to play ball," says Oehrlein. "It’s this really cool opportunity to bring industries together and to show our country what it’s capable of. And that’s really meaningful for us."
MegaBots has a lot of work ahead of them though, starting with meeting its funding goals. An earlier pitch by the company last year to create "the sport of the future" — a giant robot fighting league — failed after only raising a little over $65,000 of its $1.8 million funding goal. The team have had to scale back their ambitions, removing the walking element of the bots ("realistically we don’t have time," says Cavalcanti) and concentrating on a duel rather than a whole league.
Concept art for modular weapon upgrades, including a pair of boxing arms nicknamed "Stars and Stripes." (MegaBots)
They've also got to hash out rules for the duel with Suidobashi Industries, the Japanese team which unveiled its own four-ton mech back in 2012. MegaBots says they can't reveal anything about the location or exact rules (nothing has been finalized yet) but they stressed that both sides "want to see the robots get beat up and destroyed," adding: "Rest assured there will be destruction and the rules will support that."
"If Jay Z gave us 50 million dollars to be the pilot we’d take the money."
If the funding and the duel are successful though, MegaBots has a "five year plan" to develop an international tournament that they promise will blend the "technology of Formula 1 with the fights of UFC." They say they've already been approached by a team from South Korea and are confident that once they've got robot that can "punch a Prius hanging from a crane" there will be more interest from investors. So far there have only been talks, no solid deals, but they're open to offers. "If Jay Z gave us 50 million dollars to be like 'I'm gonna be the pilot’ we’d take the money," says Oehrlein. "Jay Z fighting in a giant robot: what's more American than that?"
Right now, MegaBots is just concentrating on the goal ahead of them: building a robot that's more than just a "glorified bulldozer" and that can give the public their first taste of real giant robot fighting. "I think we combine very joking attitudes with very serious hardware," say Cavalcanti. "We walk down the aisle in capes and aviators and people are like ‘who are these fuckers?' but then we round the corner and there’s actually a 12,000 pound robot sitting there."