Logo: University of Southern California

Outreach Through Robot Combat

How a TV show on Syfy is getting people excited about robotics
By: Katie McKissick
April 23, 2013 —
   Watch full episodes of Robot Combat League here.

When Ross Mead first got an email about a new TV show featuring fighting 8-foot-tall humanoid robots looking for robotics engineers, he didn’t take it very seriously.

But two years later, the 28-year-old Viterbi Ph.D. candidate in computer science became a contestant on that very show, Robot Combat League on Syfy.

Created by USC alumnus Jeremy Whitham, Robot Combat League is a tournament where 12 teams of human-controlled robots fight in hand to hand combat. Each team consists of a robotics expert serving as the “robo-tech” and a professional fighter serving as the “robo-jockey.” The robo-jockeys are outfitted with sensor-laden exo-suits that translate their arm movements to the robot. The “robo-tech” controls the rest of the robot using throttles and joysticks, and is responsible for between-fight repairs and maintenance.


USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidate, Ross Mead (left) and Andrew Montanez (right)

Mead is a member of team A.X.E. along with professional mixed martial arts fighter Andrew Montanez. Their robot A.X.E. is 7 feet 10 inches tall, weighs 842 pounds and has a giant axe for a head. Other robots sport features such as steel armor, aluminum spikes and hand blades.

 The A.X.E. Robot

As the robots compete in the tournament, sparks fly, hydraulic fluid leaks and robots are cut in half. But for Mead, the spectacle is just a starting point.

“To me, it’s a platform to deliver a message. Robot Combat League was a fun thing to do, but the whole point was to get people excited about what’s going on--get excited about robotics, get excited about technology.”

And that’s exactly what happened. As soon as the show premiered on Feb. 26, 2013 on Syfy, Mead started hearing from viewers. He now spends two hours each day responding to fan mail--some from kids and some from parents eager to encourage their children’s new interest in robotics. Ross responds to such requests by sending the chapter he wrote for the book Robots in K-12 Education: A New Technology for Learning, entitled “Grade School to Grad School: An Integrated STEM Pipeline Model through Robotics.”

Mead also saw a dramatic increase in the views of his publications, including his research profile on Academia.edu, a site that allows people to share information about their published research. “I used to get just 5 or 6 views a week, but all of a sudden I was getting hundreds of views each week.”

The Trojan Family was well represented on Robot Combat League — not only by Mead and the show’s creator Whitham, but also by Viterbi alumnus George Kirkman, co-founder of Rolling Robots, and Amanda Lucas, George Lucas’ daughter.

The show also featured a diverse mix of contestants. Of the 24 participants, 10 were female. This was important to Mead. “I’ve done work trying to get more underrepresented groups, women in particular, in STEM--science, technology, engineering, and math,” says Mead. “The show had a really excellent balance of men and women. It was an opportunity for me to talk about those issues and highlight role models like [fellow contestants] Heather Knight and Annika O’Brien.”

For the seven weeks of filming, Mead felt as though he was living a double life (not entirely unlike Iron Man). He couldn’t tell anyone in his lab what he was doing. “I had a secret identity where I was driving an 8-foot-tall, half ton robot with an axe for a head.” Although juggling all his responsibilities was tiring, his efforts did not go unnoticed. “So many kids talk about how they look at us as super heroes.”

Find Ross Mead on Facebook and Twitter.

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