Using modern technologies and practices to breathe new life into legacy hardware systems is a scenario most enterprise IT departments will have found themselves in at one time or another.
Ex-Robot Wars competitors Team Storm faced a similar situation in January 2016, when the producers of the popular BBC2 show asked if they would like to appear in the new series with their 16-year-old, fan-favourite robot, Storm2.
And not just to perform a victory lap or two of the Robot Wars arena for old times’ sake, but to compete against the creations of a new generation of enthusiasts and competitors.
“It was an incredible ride for us [first time around], in that we went from never having appeared on TV to winning the World Championships in nine months,” says Ed Hoppitt, who – with Tim and Meral Bence – makes up Team Storm.
“When they asked us back, we were quite relaxed it about because winning the World Championships is the biggest thing you can win and we were pretty sure we weren’t going to do it again. So we got involved with the intention of getting something else out of it.”
By that he means the opportunity to push the limits of what Storm2 could do with technologies that were not around when the robot made its debut on the show back in the early 2000s.
“When you look at Storm2 compared with the other machines, it doesn’t look old, but it is a very different to the robot that fought in series seven of the show,” he says.
“I think a lot of people expected us to turn up with something that looks like it was dragged out of a garage, but we’ve spent a lot of time and money redoing the bits that needed to be done.”
Bigger and better
Despite advances in engine design, battery capacity and armour strength in the decade or so Robot Wars has been off-air, returning to the show with a new machine was not an option for Team Storm.
“When we built Storm2, it was almost an order of magnitude more powerful than most robots it was competing against, and we said if we can’t make that same jump again, we’re don’t want to build another robot for the sake of it or something that isn’t innovative,” Hoppitt says.
“For us it is about taking the original design as far as we can, and we are pretty much there. The way it is constructed is probably not strong enough for what we are going to see in the next series of Robot Wars.”
Don’t give up the day job
When he is not tinkering with robots, Hoppitt works for virtualisation software provider VMware, where he heads the organisation’s Europe, Middle East and Africa-focused cloud native applications and DevOps team. The company also sponsors Team Storm.
So for Hoppitt and the rest of the team, using software to manage and solve hardware problems is not exactly a foreign concept, and is an approach they have followed since the beginning with Storm2.
“Most teams that build robots are engineers, so there is a really obvious set of transferrable skills there, whereas we designed the robot using concepts people use to design software. We started out by breaking down what would be required for us to win,” he says.
As it turns out, the “winning requirements” for Team Storm are similar to those most IT managers look for when procuring kit, in that it needs to be reliable and easy to maintain.
Both concepts have influenced the design of Storm2 throughout its life, along with the feedback the team has received over the years by participating in off-screen robotics competitions.
This has allowed Hoppitt and his team to take a DevOps and agile-like approach to improving the robot’s design, which has made its return to the Robot Wars arena after such a long time away a far less daunting prospect.
“The thing about agile technology and DevOps is you’re essentially always working with a prototype, and you are always in the middle of that cycle of innovation and looking for things you can learn from,” says Hoppitt.
The UK has the benefit of a large and vibrant live events scene where competitive robot fights are concerned, he adds, which has provided the team with ample opportunities to hone Storm2’s design.
“You go to an event, you learn about what your robot can and cannot do, you adapt the design, go to another event and the cycle of innovation starts again,” he says.
“I could take the robot to 10 events a year in the UK, whereas in America they have one event every 12 months. So, in the UK, we get to go through that cycle of innovation much faster.”
The agile advantage
Hoppitt’s experience in the project management side of DevOps has also come to the fore in all this, as the team have found themselves having to outsource parts of the design process.
“I have a day job that doesn’t involve building robots, so we have had to outsource or get people involved with the building and machining side of things, and then you end up in a situation where you have to manage multiple teams and find a way to do that effectively,” he says.
To help with this process, the team uses project management software Trello, which allows them to organise tasks, track the progress of the third parties dealing with them and see how all this contributes to the design and build of the finished product.
“The core of our DNA with all this is to approach the situation like an IT organisation would, while keeping in mind that we actually want to build a reliable service,” he says.
“If your robot breaks down, it doesn’t matter how fabulous the weapon on top of it is because you’ve already lost. Similarly, if it takes a lot of damage in one fight and it is too difficult to maintain and fix before the next one, you have lost.”
A lot of the changes Team Storm made to their machine in preparation for its big return to the small screen were internal, including the introduction of telemetry sensors that track the engine temperature, voltage, current and the revolutions per minute of its wheels.
Team Shock’s Will Thomas predicts that the use of telemetry data could catch on in the Robot Wars community, and have a long-lasting effect on how future battles are conducted.
“It’s quite an experimental technology to have in a fighting robot. As time goes on and the technology advances, it may become a standard feature of robots because there are benefits to using it. At the moment, we have no idea what’s going on inside the robot during a match,” he said.
“It could end up creating a two-tier system, whereby you have formula one class robots, who have the telemetry and other high-end components, and then you an entry-level class where anyone in their shed can turn up, build a robot and compete.”
This information is fed-back in real time to the driver, and displayed on a panel built into Storm2’s handheld controls. This allows the team to tweak their strategy depending on how the machine is holding up during the course of a three-minute fight.
“The motor is designed to run at 24 volts and the overall robot runs at 42 volts. So, if we’re halfway through a fight and we’re not delivering enough damage, we can judge how hot the motor is and make a call on whether or not we should give it the full 42 volts,” he says.
Despite the apparent tactical advantage having access to this telemetry data gives the team, some members of the robotics community have been a little sceptical about its usefulness, Hoppitt says.
“Lots of people in the community have talked about getting this data back from the robot as being a gimmick, but it has saved us hundreds or thousands of pounds because we’re not blowing up motors all the time,” he said.
“We’re looking at taking it next level by interfacing the telemetry system to Liota [VMware’s internet of things gateway], so we can capture all of the data in the cloud and make it available to work on from anywhere, because we all live in different locations.”
The collection of telemetry data and the ability to interpret it in real-time is often cited by Formula One teams as critical to success on the track.
In the case of Team Storm, Hoppitt says it is hard to say if it had a huge bearing on their success this time around.
“There are a couple of fights where we adapted what we were doing because of the data we were getting,” he says.
“There was one fight where we knew one of the motors had taken damage because it was reading significantly hotter than the other one, when they should both be around the same temperature.
“But, in hindsight, it is difficult to say whether or not those changes would have been decisive moments in determining whether or not we would be successful.”
As anyone who watched the 14 August 2016 show can confirm, Team Storm made it to the final 10, only to miss out on a place in the grand final.
“We ended up a heat finalist, which, for a robot that was conceived in 1999 and went up against one that was built today, is not a bad result at all.”
Inspiring the next
As previously stated, Team Storm had other reasons for wanting to take part in the show this time around, aside from just wanting to win.
A big source of motivation for the group was getting the chance to inspire a new batch of hobbyists to have a bash at building a machine of their own, just like they were during the show’s original run.
At the time, Hoppitt was studying for a degree in computer science and business at Royal Holloway when he and a pal decided – after watching series after series of the show – to build a robot called Storm.
“It was built like you would build a robot if you were a child. We wanted it do everything. It had to be four-wheel drive, it had to lift things, it had to run both ways and carry things. And it did all those things really badly. It was rubbish at everything,” recalls Hoppitt.
“That is the reason why the only robot you see on TV is Storm2, but we learnt a lot from the mistakes we made from building the first one.”
Fellow robotics enthusiast Will Thomas credits the show with not only inspiring him to start building machines of his own, but also for spurring him on to pursue a career in design technology.
Thomas won the Sunday 31 July 2016 episode of the show with his robot, Shockwave, after impressing producers with an early concept for the machine. In total, the robot took 12 hours to design using CAD software, and five weeks to build once his team found out they had secured a spot on the show.
“When the original series was in its prime, I was 10 and captivated by it. In the evenings and at weekends, I’d be in my room hacking remote control cars apart, trying to build my own robot,” he tells Computer Weekly.
“After a couple of years of nagging my dad, we started building robots for the small, featherweight class and getting quite competitive, before moving up to the heavyweight class about eight years ago.
“Since then we’ve built a few of our own machines including Shockwave, and we’re getting reasonably good at it now,” he adds.
After having his interest in robots piqued at an early age, Thomas has gone on to complete a degree and masters in robotics, and is now in the throes of training to become a design technology teacher.
“It was the show that kick-started my interest, and with any luck we can do the same for a new generation, but the thing that would be really nice would be to get more female teams involved,” he says.
It is worth mentioning that both Team Storm and Team Shock have female members, while a recent episode of the show saw a nine-year-old girl called April compete with her robot, Glitterbomb.
Making people aware of that and dispelling the perception from outsiders that robotics is “only for boys” is something Thomas is keen to do, on the back of his involvement with the show and the wider live events circuit.
“My fiancée has been dragged into it by me, but she has her own heavyweight robot that we might look to enter Robot Wars next time around and highlight the fact it really is not a boys’ club,” he says.
“If you look behind it all, there are an awful lot of girls involved with making it possible and in the audience there are girls who loved the show first time around and have had to drag their other halves along.”
The social aspect
Both teams are also using social media to interact with fans of the show as part of their quests to inspire others to get involved, with Thomas remarking that many of the questions he gets online are from people asking how to qualify.
“It ranges from people who are five years old to people at university and older. If there is another series, there would be a huge number of applicants for it, because so many people seem to want to have a go,” he says.
“We were inundated with messages asking how we did it and congratulating us on our win, and it’s a really great way to get in touch with the people. I think the social media aspect is what could end up making the show even bigger than it was last time.”
Read more about robotics in tech
- The London Borough of Enfield is starting to use a software robot, known as Amelia, to process citizen requests.
- Hexagon, a manufacturer that measures and monitors robots, and other components is using the Salesforce IoT Cloud to better tune components to environmental factors.