3 ways the technology used on Robot Wars has advanced since the original series

Posted 01/08/2016 at 8:30pm

You may be forgiven for thinking that even after 12 years off air, the competitor robots you see on Robot Wars aren’t all that different from the ones seen during the series’ original run in the late 90s and early 2000s.

After all, so far in the new series we've seen the crushers, axes, flippers and spinners that any Robot Wars fan will be accustomed to. So what has changed in the decade-and-a-bit the show was off air?

The answer, as it turns out, is almost everything. Despite appearing superficially similar to their predecessors, today's competitors are lightyears ahead in many key aspects.

While technologically we're not quite at the stage where the show can feature nothing but autonomous humanoids fighting each other with lasers in outer space, the robots featured on today's Robot Wars are packed with cutting edge technology and innovations.

Battery Technology

LiPo batteries

LiPo batteries provide the best balance of power, size and weight

This is probably the single biggest advancement in the last decade. The robots of the original series were almost exclusively powered by Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) batteries which could provide 12 or 24 volts.

Often sourced from the more gentle world of mobility scooters, these batteries were not particularly well suited to the hard knocks and impacts they had to contend with inside the Robot Wars Arena.

Particularly in the later series when more powerful weapons created greater g-forces, SLA batteries became the weak link.

Hard knocks would cause the metal plates mounted inside the battery to shake loose. When these plates moved sufficiently enough to touch each other they would short circuit and kill the battery.

Compared to today's batteries, SLAs were also large and extremely heavy. Robots like Hypno-Disc, which required significant power to run its spinning disc, would carry up to 22kg of batteries - not far off a quarter of its total weight.

In the last couple of series, some competitors made the move to NiCd batteries. These were lighter, and didn't suffer so badly from big shocks as the SLA batteries, however at the time they were a relatively new technology and therefore cost significantly more.

Razer moved to NiCds for Robot Wars Extreme series two, and the total cost of upgrading the batteries ran into thousands of pounds.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, another new battery technology emerged - Lithium Polymer (LiPo). These are even lighter than NiCds, and for their size and weight are far more efficient.

LiPos can provide higher voltages and discharge rates, meaning competitors can use larger, more powerful motors. During the original run of Robot Wars, 1HP motors were common. Today many robots use 5HP+ motors giving them far more pushing power.

LiPos can also provide much higher voltages while remaining light enough to be practical in the 100-110kg weight limit for competitor robots. Machines running on 28-36v are now commonplace, with some teams opting for even higher voltages.

LiPos aren't perfect however, as they can be unstable and explode when damaged. Out of the robot, a LiPo battery must kept inside a fireproof sack which is capable of containing it should the battery catch fire while charging.

Already a newer battery technology called LiFePO is emerging, bringing almost all the benefits of LiPo batteries but in a more stable package.

Hardox Armour

Hardox armour

Hardox is a wear-resistant steel that is strong enough to defend against spinners

You may have heard the term Hardox mentioned on the show a few times already, but what is it?

In short, its a very strong form of steel that is most commonly used to build industrial machinery like digger buckets. Its pretty tough.

Hardox has almost become a necessity in Robot Wars these days, as spinning robots have evolved into the monsters that they are the older armour materials such as aluminium and titanium have proved to be insufficient.

Some teams have taken their armour even further and use Armox, which is even stronger than Hardox. Whereas Hardox is used in industrial machinery, Armox is used to armour tanks and military vehicles.

While Hardox is fairly common, Armox is more limited in supply and therefore also more expensive.

Both of these wear-resistant steels are difficult for anyone without access to proper machining and heavy duty cutting machinery to work with, as strong materials require even stronger tools to cut and drill them to the right size.

Titanium was long the preferred anti-spinner deterrent, as although it is expensive it was light and extremely strong. The wear-resistant steels are heavier, but can be used in thinner sheets which offsets the weight disadvantage somewhat.

Coupled with the enormous weight saving most competitors gain by using LiPo batteries, Hardox or Armox are undoubtedly the best choices for any robot serious about defending against spinning robots like Carbide.

More Powerful Motors

An E-Tek motor

An E-Tek motor is one of the most powerful electric motors available today

The most commonly used motor for many years in the world of robot combat was the Bosch 750. As suggested by its name, this was a 750w motor that produced around 1HP.

Today's motors can typically produce at least three times that amount of horsepower, with some models producing significantly more than that.

Brushless motors are the latest emerging technology and, while few competitors currently use them, you can expect to see them appear more frequently in future.

Coming from the world of model aeroplanes, brushless motors are smaller, more efficient and more lightweight than traditional brushed motors, delivering more speed and power compared to a similarly sized brushed motor.

Currently there are some complications that must be overcome before brushless motors can become the standard for fighting robots.

They are quite delicate in their construction and on many models almost the entire case of the motor actually spins round with the axle, meaning any loose wires inside the robot can get tangled up around them very easily.

Brushless motors are also generally intended to power propellers on model aircraft, so most controllers for them only allow them to spin in a single direction, which means a robot using brushless motors would be unable to reverse. Two-way drive requires re-programming the speed controllers.

Final Thoughts

So while on the surface at least many of the modern robots seen in the new series of Robot Wars may not seem any more advanced than their classic series predecessors, they are actually significantly ahead, both in their internal components and their external armour plating.

What's more, with even better battery and motor technology just around the corner, the future for fighting robots looks very bright indeed.

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