- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

When Jeff Cesnik heard the call to battle, he answered it as best he could.The Stephens City, Va., resident built a robot and steered it into combat against the creations of other like-minded souls who prefer scrapping with scrap metal, not fists.
Mr. Cesnik, 27, is a veteran of the robot battles now populating the cable-TV landscape. He and machinist Billy Boden of Winchester, Va., have become seasoned robot fighters since embracing the sport in January.
Shows such as Comedy Central's "BattleBots," TNN's "Robot Wars" and TLC's "Robotica" pit man-made, radio-controlled robots against each other in gladiator-style combat to the death, or at least until the batteries run dry.
Mr. Cesnik's journey into mechanized warfare began while he was watching a promotion for "Robotica," which asked viewers: "Do you have what it takes?"
"Yeah, I do," Mr. Cesnik told himself, and he began constructing his first robot, Kritical Mass, along with his 29-year-old machinist friend.
"After TLC, we got hooked," says Mr. Cesnik, who owns his own software-writing company and taught himself all he knows about robotics. His robots have battled it out on all three robot programs, a genre that seems to be peaking along with reality TV.
TNN's "Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors," the latest entry in the genre imported from England, drew more than 1.3 million viewers for its Aug. 20 debut, according to the network.
Mr. Cesnik captained one of the 18 U.S. teams that competed in London for the program.
All the robots operate on battery power and typically must adhere to various weight restrictions.
The roboteers orchestrating the metal mayhem can't rely on technical savvy alone. They must employ strategy and adept hand-eye skills to outmaneuver their opponents.
Kritical Mass now rests in pieces in Mr. Cesnik's modest garage (which doubles as his robot laboratory), — its fighting days over.
Manta, the pair's most recent robot, bears the scars of its battles, mostly in the form of paint marks and scratches. Its outer shell remains mostly intact, save for one puncture wound covered, for now, by a household bandage.
The bulk of the materials that make up Manta's frame came from industrial supply houses, Mr. Cesnik says. The low-slung robot, which stands at a modest 40 by 36 by 9 inches, is forged from about $700 worth of aircraft-level steel chromoly. It's a strong, resilient metal that requires a sophisticated welding process called tig (tungsten and inert gas) welding to hold true.
The outer armor is made from grade 5 titanium, a rugged material Mr. Cesnik says cost him about $1,500.
In total, Mr. Cesnik estimates the robot's creation drained up to $12,000 from his bank account. Kritical Mass, by comparison, cost between $5,000 and $7,000.
• • •
Some of the differences between the two have little to do with money.
Manta's slanted sides, for example, allow it to burrow under an opponent.
"Pushing is a big part of the robotics sport," Mr. Boden says.
"It's all about leverage," Mr. Cesnik adds. "You steal their weight and use it to your advantage."
Manta's weapon, a large spinning blade planted at the robot's front, could cut through a brick wall, Mr. Cesnik says.
Mr. Boden whittled down the blade from a 57-pound hunk of tool steel heat-treated for maximum hardness. The whirring weapon can spin at 5,000 revolutions per minute, or 200 miles per hour.
A carbide spike made of a combination of carbon and metal juts out of the robot's hind section to ward off surprise attacks.
Powered by 80 NiCad battery cells, Manta can skitter across a robot arena at 30 miles per hour.
Mr. Cesnik steers Manta with a remote-control device originally conceived for model airplanes. The controller, which manipulates the blade, came from a PlayStation video game.
His team made it to the finals of the TLC show competition before losing and fought through 11 matches in the "Robot Wars" series before being bested. Episodes featuring the pair's robot battles began airing Sept. 1 on TNN. Manta's success, or failure, with "BattleBots" the duo wouldn't reveal.
Douglas Greiff, the executive in charge of production with "Robot Wars," says the most successful robots are those that are built low to the ground and possess self-righting mechanisms to bounce back if toppled.
"There is no similarity. Everybody takes a different stab at what they think will work," Mr. Greiff says.
His show also features "house robots," oversize beasts with names such as Drillzilla, which give the competitor robots fits by occasionally entering the fray.
• • •
Bruce Kaiser, 42, of Summit Point, W.Va., is spearheading his family's efforts to fight in the robotic trenches.
Mr. Kaiser, who works for the National Park Service by day, and his four children are crafting a pyramid-shaped robot named Giza. When completed, their robot will be shaped like its ancient Egyptian inspiration and will attack by opening its four sides and spinning.
"It protects itself by folding itself in; then it opens like the petals of a flower," Mr. Kaiser says.
His family has spent the past three months working on the robot, following three months of design preparation.
"It takes a team of experts who you have to seek out," Mr. Kaiser says. "There are mechanical and electrical aspects to it. I've learned more about machining than I ever have before."
He has been able to build the robot for about $1,000 with materials found primarily at a nearby Radio Shack store.
The speed-control module, which he designed and built to regulate the spinning motion, would have cost him about $700 to purchase separately, Mr. Kaiser estimates.
"If you only have $50, you have to find another way," he says.
The construction has been made easier thanks to the far-flung network of fellow robot makers found online. "Finding parts has been a challenge," Mr. Kaiser says. "Without the Internet, it would have been 10 times as hard."
He doesn't mind that his low-budget creation might square off against machines worth 10 times his final cost.
"You can't tell based on the budget who's gonna win the fight," says Mr. Kaiser, who hopes to have Giza ready by midfall to compete in shows such as "BattleBots" and "Robot Wars."
The technology available makes such efforts possible, says David Grier, assistant professor at George Washington University's Department of Computer Science and International Affairs. He says the basic technology used in these shows has been around for decades.
"Most of the machines are basically radio-controlled cars. The technology for that was well in place by the 1970s," using small, cheap electric motors and transistorized radio transmitters/receivers, Mr. Grier says.
The small-scale electronics that make such minirobots possible can be traced to the Minuteman missile program, he says. The program, a key strategic cog in the Cold War, allowed the United States to fire nuclear-weapons-bearing missiles to Soviet targets in fewer than 30 minutes.
"To build a robot … one would need a modest amount of mechanical engineering skill and a certain amount of what used to be called 'radio engineering,'" he says.
Mr. Cesnik's next robot, a fourth-generation model that he promises will be more powerful than his previous creations, will compete in editions of "Robotica" and "BattleBots" in the fall.
He expects the new robot construction to be finished by October.
"Building it is the most mundane part," Mr. Cesnik says. The various monetary prizes earned for building a victorious robot remain underwhelming. He hopes future winnings might, at best, defray construction costs.
The competition makes his efforts worthwhile, for both him and the viewers.
"It's got everything that makes for good TV," Mr. Cesnik says of the sport, "controlled violence that doesn't hurt anybody."


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