The Engadget Interview: Mark Setrakian of Syfy's Robot Combat League (video)

From the latest harbinger of the robopocalypse from Boston Dynamics to more friendly looking machines like Romo, Engadget has a longstanding love affair with all forms of robots. Syfy channel's newest show, Robot Combat League (RCL), has provided us with twelve new objects of robotic affection --and the best part is, we get to watch them destroy each other in gladiatorial fashion. RCL isn't the first show to have 'bots do battle on TV, of course, but it is the first to have the robots be humanoid avatars that mimic the movements of the people operating them. Mark Setrakian is the man who designed and built the dozen robots on the show, and we recently got the opportunity to chat with him about how he did it.

The robots, despite having very different outward appearances, are pretty much identical underneath. Each is about eight feet tall and is constructed from a plethora of hydraulic actuators and custom machined parts. Most bots that grace these pages are driven by electric motors and battery power, but RCL's machines are powered by hydraulic fluid and an external motor that pressurizes it to 2,000psi -- which translates to 50 gallons of fluid per minute flowing through the robot's veins. That's a tremendous amount of pressure; by comparison, Boston Dynamics' Petman operates at a mere seven gallons per minute. This high rate of fluid flow is the key to providing the destructive power required for the bots to deliver the mechanized mayhem that makes for good TV.

When developing a fight-worthy humanoid chassis and the exo-suit used to control them, Setrakian drew heavily on his experience building animatronics for films such as Men in Black and Hellboy and his time as a champion robot builder on the shows Battle Bots and Robot Wars. His time in Hollywood taught him how to build robots with lifelike movements and human-friendly controls. His previous robot fighting experience taught Setrakian about the many ways in which battle bots can break, and allowed him to craft more robust androids for Robot Combat League.

Fighting robots, obviously, are awesome

It took him four months to construct a prototype bot to sell the Syfy channel on the concept. To create that prototype, Setrakian designed it down to the smallest detail using Autodesk's AutoCAD Inventor software. Then it was a matter of ordering the custom hydraulic rams and valves needed, and machining every other part required to bring them to life. It took him (and a few other fabricators and programmers) another four months to build the twelve robots -- at roughly $200k a pop -- that you see on the show. The control suite is powered by some off-the-shelf animatronic control software with a custom plug-in Setrakian's team wrote specifically for fighting.

With all of the work that went into building these bots, you might think that seeing them destroy each other is a bittersweet experience for Mark. On the contrary, he's behind the scenes cheering and yelling as he's swept up in the excitement of combat. Plus, he can always put them back together, and that's part of the fun. "Fighting robots, obviously, are awesome" he says. We couldn't agree more, Mark.

Zach Honig contributed to this report.