Rocket City Robot Assault 2004

The Trip

Well the build was a little bit rocky but I really was looking forward to the trip. We've always been a family who travels well and that was part of what made this event so vacation-like. I packed up everything for the bot and loaded it into the big old chevy conversion van and we hit the road for Huntsville.

I think we hit a hotel around halfway in North Carolina somewhere. It was summer time so the weather was great. We were pretty beat but we probably ordered pizza and crashed the pool. I remember the trip itself being great fun, even though I was a little nervous about how the competition itself would go. I was so relieved that the bot worked, and even how well the weapon continued to run after hitting things. I didn't really know what to expect but I was excited.

The next day, which was the day before the competition, we arrived in Huntsville. We had been through Alabama before but hadn't spent much time in the cities. We had the address of the venue but didn't really know what we were looking for. Dad and I dropped everybody else off at the hotel and went out to try to locate the actual building where we would be competing. We followed the mapquest directions we had to their end point but didn't see anything that looked promising. We wandered around a little while and eventually decided to try to find a library so we could try to look up more details on the event location and double check the address we were using. We had no idea how to find a library though, so after looking for signs for a little while we decided to ask somebody on the street. We pulled over and asked a guy who was walking along the sidewalk if he knew where a library was and he said it wasn't too far away. He tried to give us directions but couldn't be specific enough for us to find it.

I can't remember exactly how it happened, but somehow we ended up with him in the passenger seat giving us directions while we drove down the street. I honestly can't remember if we ever did find a library, but after we drove for a while we eventually let him back out of the car. Somehow we found our way back to where we came from and did a double check for signs or something we recognized. We saw somebody wheeling a hand truck with some tools on it into what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse and noticed that there were several cars parked out front. We decided to go see what the deal was and to our surprise the abandoned building we had been driving back and forth past for an hour actually had within it the robot fighting facilities of the Rocket City Robot Assault

At this point we unloaded our tools and got assigned a pit table. This event was super-organized, and the pits were already labeled and had adequate space and power sources for each one. There was an index at the front table for everybody's location so at any point the pit runner could track down a particular team if necessary. They gave us clothes pins for frequency clips with our names on them so that when we checked a frequency clip out of the impound we could leave our clip in its place and they would know who to contact if they needed it. That was a really cool system that was just a slightly improved method of how they had done it at Motorama 2004 with a transmitter impound.

We got pitted next to Greg Ferree of Team Jav Man. I had met Greg at the Robot Club and Grille with his twelve pound brick named PITB. Generally I'm not in favor of brick bots because they are usually boring, but PITB was wickedly fast and carved out of a block of aluminum. This made the bot pretty much an indestructable pinball that was entertaining to watch even when playing against other wedges or bricks. Greg also had his brand-new half-finished 30 pound bot named PITR. Our pit was pretty cluttered but at least we had a fan and some sandwiches for lunch. Alabama is HOT in the summer...

The Event - Setup and Safety

This competition was organized by Marc Devidts, the guy who created the Builder's Database. He also created some event management software that provided continuous estimates of when future fights would occur based on postponements and average fight overhead throughout the competition. Computers running this software were placed at the administration desk facing the pits so builders could always check to see when they were up and who they were fighting. This was a HUGE value for the builders and probably saved the administrators a lot of time. Major kudos to Marc and his team. My mother still talks about how awesome that event was. His software also created interactive brackets so you can see who fought who and when.

While everything was getting set up I walked around and checked out some of the other cool machines that were around. Behind me was an early version of the bot Ntertainment. It had dual vertical disks at the time that were attached with really big versions of the TranTorque bushings that I was using to hold my roller wheels on. I was glad to see somebody else using parts that I was using. I saw a cool 30 pound bot named Totally Offensive that I had heard about online. This bot had sacrificed pretty much every semblance of armor in favor of a bigger weapon and it did ok when the frame didn't warp. Another impressive-looking bot was Dark Stryker. It sported a highly polished stainless steel wedge body with no juicy corners supporting a gigantic vertical steel blade. Another cool feature of the bot was that they put magnets underneath the wheels to help hold it on the ground. Sparky was a garage-built lightweight that had been thrown together with parts laying around including a gigantic washing machine motor. I'm honestly not sure how it stayed balanced enough to spin but it was fun to watch bouncing all around the arena as the cage flexed all over. This is the only bot I've ever seen in person that was less dense than my first bot.

I noticed that Greg had glued the motor wires coming out of the astro 40 motors he was using for the drive system to the can. He also glued pretty much every other connector in the bot that didn't need to come apart between matches. I was using zipties to hold my battery connectors together, but things like the PWM connectors on my receiver and ESCs were just pressed in. He had also split the large 10 gauge wire on his battery packs into pairs of 45A powerpoles. This allowed him to use the much smaller housings without loss of current carrying capacity. I planned to implement that once I got home.

When they called safety inspections for the 30 pound bots I carried my bot up to the line. My turn came and I put the bot on the scale. To my amazement the bot was almost 2 pounds underweight. Well I guess switching to an aluminum shell and a smaller baseplate really did help my overweight problems. I was a little embarassed that I had cut down the bands on the weapon teeth before checking to see if it was necessary but at least I could pass safety.... or so I thought. It turns out that this event had a requirement that your robot had a power indicator light so the wranglers could tell when it was activated. Unfortunately for me I didn't know that until right then so I had to go through the pits looking for somebody that had a spare LED and a clue on how to hook it up.

Fortunately for me there were a few such people. Not only did they exist, but they were willing to just give me the LED and a resistor for it (which I didn't even know that I needed!). The table that responded so willingly belonged to Team O-Town. They had two robots that made me say "That's what I want to be". The robots were similar to each other, one was a lightweight named Ground Zero and the other was a middleweight named Killjoy. After I left the competition Killjoy fought MadDog in an epic double knockout

Once I had the LED, I had to get it attached to the bot somewhere that was visible. That's easier said than done in a full body spinner. I decided it would be valid if I pointed it down at the rear of the bot so you could see the glow underneath the back of the shell. That place worked out ok because it was where the thor spin controller was. I formed the wire leads on the LED and resistor into little rings and tried to solder them together. Greg lent me his butane soldering iron so I wouldn't have to wait for mine to heat up. It was painful but I eventually got the thing together and got shrinkwrap over it. We went back to the safety inspection table and finally got through. The bot spun up like it was supposed to during the test and this time I didn't even drive it into the wall to show how cool I was. I did notice during the test drive that the seams on the metal floor panels affected the driving.

The Fight(s)

Before you get my rendition of my fight, you can actually view video of all of the fights on the site made by Robert Woodhead, who built Totally Offensive. They are rated (by him) and have short descriptions. It's a really great thing for him to host video of things like this on his site, and he started it before places like YouTube even existed. I've talked to him on several occasions and he is a great guy.

There were a lot of really awesome fights at this competition and I had the fortune to be able to watch them. My first fight happened fairly early on against a robot from North Carolina named Xhilarating impaX. This was just a wedge bot so I wasn't worried about it trashing my bot too bad. Of course, every FBS can be its own worst enemy, but having only one active weapon in the box reduced the chances of total annihilation.

The video (from Robert Woodhead at shows that I spun up ok at the beginning. I was worried because XX looked a lot tougher than the rotten wood I had tested against but I was there to fight after all, so fight I would. I was able to spin up to a pretty reasonable speed before he came across the arena and missed me on the box rush. I kinda wobbled forward and he turned and went wedge-first into my weapon. We pinballed around a few times until about a minute in he bounced me into the wall. If you look in the video you can see the "something off his bot" that the announcers are talking about. It was the fan on the weapon speed controller. Somehow that hit lined up just right to cause lots of bad things to happen. The fan came off and the same blow popped the signal wire out of the speed controller. Remember how I didn't glue it even after I saw greg's was glued? Ooops...

The rest of the match was spent with me getting hung up on the floor seams because I hadn't used loctite on any of the screws. I didn't even know what loctite was, or why the screws would work loose. Because they were the screws holding the drive motors down the ground clearance for the whole bot was greatly reduced and I kept getting stuck on the floor. The announcer was thinking it was because of the bent shell but I think it was those screws. The shell certainly was bent though.

The hit into the wall also caused one of the (now very hot) weapon motors to shift outward in its mount. When this happened the bolt head on the inside of the shell came across and totally demolished the trantorque that was being used as the wheel hub. This was the really fatal blow because I hadn't ordered a spare one of those. That meant the bot could either fight again with one motor (that would almost definitely smoke) or I could just shelve the bot and enjoy the rest of the competition. Naturally I decided to switch to student mode and save my $200 weapon motors for next time. It seemed a little like a waste of a long trip, except the trip itself was fun and the competition was extremely entertaining without worrying about competing.

The Wrapup

Ok, so I learned several things during this build and event:

  1. Finish the bot more than a week before the competition so you can at least make sure all the parts work
  2. Testing against a solid opponent is a good idea, rotting wood is softer than steel
  3. The floor isn't usually smooth - make sure you have enough ground clearance
  4. Check the weight a little more often because being 1.5 pounds under isn't good
  5. Cooking Supplies don't make good shells. Both folded despite some reinforcements, maybe it's time to make a real shell
  6. Some bots use dual rates in their transmitters to make their 24v weapon packs work for 14.4 or 12v drive motors
  7. Friction drive works better than the old setup and these motors are powerful but they get really hot so better mounts are needed
  8. Loctite is necessary to keep bolts from vibrating loose, especially in blind holes.
  9. Being more prepared at the competition can go a long way to staying in the fights. Spares are worth it even if they seem expensive.
  10. Fellow builders are still the coolest people I know and will often just give you parts and advice when you need them

After this competition I really went back to the drawing board and tried to remain open minded on what I wanted to do. There were a lot of things I needed to change, but at the top of the list was the shell solution. I saw steel in my future but had to get everything a lot smaller to make weight. Check out the build for Motorama 2005 for the next step in the evolution.