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Fledgling aspirations: Combat robot in China welcomes younger, stronger players

By Jiang Jie in Shanghai (People's Daily Online)    16:08, August 09, 2018

What was your fanciest toy when you were a kid? A mini-4WD used to be one of the best, one must admit, as the palm-sized model race car could reach up to 40 mph on a race track, wowing all children with its power and fast acceleration.

Now, that enthusiasm has been elevated to another level, as more and more Chinese youth are welcoming a new type of “toy”: combat robots.

 

(Yang Rongxiang, 12, fixes his combat robot at the FMB World Cup All Star Championship in Shanghai on August 6.   Photo courtesy of FMB)

Young dreams

After four days at the Robot Carnival on the sideline of the 2018 China Joy in Shanghai, from August 3 to 6, Zhang Hongyi got used to the rattling sounds of engines and the smell of burning oil in the pavilion. In fact, he enjoyed it, even more so than the resplendent computer monitors used for gaming.

The nine-year-old boy is the captain of Team Hongyi—named after him, and he remained firmly focused throughout MechBattle, a game for 1.5-kilogram combat robots.

Though the youngest player at the Robot Carnival, Zhang successfully took the top 16 spot from a total of 24 teams in MechBattle with his “Divinity Yi”—a homemade drum spinner with 3D-printed armor that can move at a top speed of 10 km/h and spin its weapon at 2,000 rpm.

“I’ve been playing with Lego robots for many years, but this is my first time to build a combat robot. It feels so cool. My tutor and I will be making a 15-kilogram robot for FMB World Cup by year end,” Zhang proudly said.

Almost all the young players competing in the 1.5-kilogram MechBattle dream of having their own 15-kilogram robot one day. The 15-kilogram FMB World Cup All Star Championship at the carnival caught way more eyes than their amateur competition, especially as their machines, much to their dismay, sometimes even failed to start.

The dream was also shared by 10-year-old Du Yongan, who also made it to the top 16 with his spinner named “Thunder Armor.”

“I don’t know exactly why I love robots, but it does give me a sense of fulfillment when I’m making my own,” Du told People’s Daily.

The 15-kilogram FMB World Cup All Star Championship is within reach for the hopeful children, as this year’s game has already welcomed a popular father-son team called “Hertz Power,” made up of 12-year-old operator Yang Rongxiang and his “Iron hammer No.3” robot equipped with a spinning axe and drill bit.

(A contestant presents his 1.5-kg combat robot at MechBattle.  Photo courtesy of FMB)

Passion and profession

The rise of a new generation has made John Lear recall his early years in the combat robot arenas.

“Thanks to all the technology now, it makes driving easy, whereas 20 years ago, the technology was not there to make it work. It’s quite easy to build [a robot] now,” said Lear, a 57-year-old player of Team Beast UK from the UK.

However, being experienced did not help the team’s flipper robot, “Beauty 2,” win another championship title as they have always done so over the past years.

Chongqing-based Menluo Robot Club also failed to bring home the winner title, even though it is one of the earliest robot clubs in China, with several well-built combat robots, including “Wu Kong,” or “Monkey King,” which astounded viewers with a string of KO winnings at the FMB World Cup All Star Championship.

The all-star champion, however, was Qipinbacou, or “Patch Up” in English. Operator Lin Xinghua, better known as Nandianshi among Chinese combat robot fans, and his mechanic partner, Lu Jibao, are both only reaching their 20s, and their team was only founded in May 2017 by “patching together pieces,” as they joke.

“We’re more than glad to see newcomers like them, which shows the sport’s growing popularity in China and will be conducive to the development of combat robots in China,” Tian Hong, a player with Menluo Robot Club, told People’s Daily.

The two amateurs, Lin and Lu, are working as freelance photographers in Fujian province, and the team, which consists of players from different cities in Fujian, are held together by their passion for combat robots, which has turned out to be the strongest of threads.

“Finally, we are witnessing more and more teams with better performance. And luckily, more people are joining us out of their passion for the sport and not for venture capital,” Lin commented. “Many of us remember the combat robots show from our childhood that inspired us to pursue robotics,” he added.

 

(Photo courtesy of FMB)

Spread the hope

The show that bred many players’ desire for combat robots was the 1990s show Robot Wars, aired in China for five seasons. After nearly two decades, the axing, crushing, flipping, and spinning robots are back on screen, as several combat robot-themed shows have resurfaced in recent years amid the nation’s resurrecting enthusiasm for the games.

Meanwhile, off-the-screen battles are even more welcomed, as an attentive crowd which included several children cheered and gasped at the China Joy pavilion, eyes fixed on the metallic bodies that rammed into each other with rage.

“I hope my boy can learn from these players and become interested in science one day,” said a mother with her 8-year-old son, who kept cheering during the matches.

According to Lear, combat robots are not toys but machines that can teach “every skill you need in engineering,” including welding, drilling, wiring, and computer programming, which makes it necessary to promote the sport.

This is exactly why Zhang Hongfei founded FMB, which stands for Fighting My Bots, the Shanghai-originated combat robot sport brand.

“There was less than 10 teams back when we started. Now there are over a thousand. It’s indeed gratifying. What we want is to provide a professional and standard sporting event for global combat robot lovers and to help train Chinese players. We’re delighted to now be called the ‘Huangpu Military Academy’ after successfully training some top-notch players,” Zhang told People’s Daily.

Combat robots used to be a weird hobby, but it is developing in China, with more teams and more developed robots, commented Tim Bouwens, a player with Team Bonx from the Netherlands.

“It’s a competition, but main thing is to have fun, to meet other people, and to make friends,” he noted.

This fun spirit is already observed through young players like Du. “But more importantly, if you lose, you come back and fight again. If you win, you show respect to your opponent. This is what combat robot is all about.” Du said. 

(All contestants at 2018 Robot Carnival in Shanghai  Photo courtesy of FMB)

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Jiang Jie, Bianji)

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