Most Others Are Tin Cans at Hands of O.C. Robot
August 20, 1997 | SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Dan Danknick built his robot Alexander for one purpose: destruction. Like its predecessor, Agamemnon, Alexander is literally tough as steel, and with an on-board computer connected to a Sony Playstation controller, as wily as its creator.
Unlike Agamemnon, which at 104 pounds was capable of towing Danknick’s Isuzu Rodeo, Alexander favors speed over power.
Agamemnon was capable of only 6 mph. Alexander, at 100 pounds, flies in comparison.
Or, as Danknick says: “With a top speed of 20 mph, ramming is an attractive attack mode. Besides, a fast robot crashing into its opponent is what the audience is paying big bucks to watch.”
The audience Danknick refers to gathered last weekend to attend Robot Wars ’97 in San Francisco.
Alexander fought its way through six battles to qualify for the championship showdown against Vicious 1, the creation of Mike Regan of Los Angeles.
In the end, Danknick had to forfeit the final match. Alexander needed a new motor, and the judges ruled against giving Danknick the 45 minutes he would need to replace it. It was a bittersweet moment for Regan: Earlier, it was Danknick who had helped patch Vicious 1 back together so it could continue to compete.
Despite Regan’s plea to judges that Danknick be given the time he needed, Vicious 1 was declared the winner.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Danknick told Regan. “It’s just Robot Wars.”
Just Robot Wars?
The competition is a battlefield reserved for the world’s most innovative amateur robot builders. Danknick, who was a spectator at the first and second competitions–in 1994 and 1995–entered in 1996 and won in the middleweight class with Agamemnon.
Since January, Danknick spent more than $5,000 ($1,800 of that in sponsorships) building Alexander, not counting the nearly $7,000 in machinery–bought specifically to support his robot “habit”–that lines his shop.
His shop is in the garage of his townhouse in Orange.
Danknick, 30, graduated from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s in physics in 1991 and works as a computer software engineer for Canon Information Systems in Costa Mesa. His interest in robots and science took hold while he was growing up in Santa Ana in the 1970s.
At Willard Junior High School, Danknick landed–fortunately–in Mark Morrill’s science class. “He made science attainable,” Danknick recalls.
The class built boats and rockets and dabbled in computers. For $5, students could take home a computer for the weekend.
“That was the light of my life for two years,” Danknick says. “There was nothing better than to rent the computer for the weekend, play games and write my own software programs.”
That first experience with software programming prepared Danknick for robotics, in which “real time” capability is an all-important factor.
“Computer games work in real time,” Danknick explains. “If you’re not fast enough firing your weapon, your opponent will fire first, and you’re dead. Robotics revolves around real-time systems, like the Mars rover or a cruise missile.”
It was also in junior high that Danknick tried to build his first robot. He became mesmerized by a nine-issue article in Radio Electronics, called “How to Build Your Own Robot.”
He never finished the robot; it was too much for what his skill level, equipment and budget allowed. But he never forgot the experience nor lost his enthusiasm for the idea.
Robots are not as complex as most people think, he says.
“There’s not a lot to it,” Danknick says. “It’s simply the combining of a lot of old technologies–hydraulics, electronics, pneumatics, structural and mechanical engineering–into a unique synthesis. A new way of looking at old things.”
Danknick’s interest in combat robots was sparked when he saw a picture of a radio-controlled car with a chain saw attached on the pages of Wired magazine, with a banner that read, “Come to Robot Wars, 1994.”
There were 12 robots in that show, none of which was earth-shattering, but he and his buddies yelled throughout the competition until they were hoarse and talked about the robots the entire next year.
In 1995 the event was bigger and better than before, and Danknick knew it was time to join. He made a list of the 40-plus robots he’d just seen and detailed how he would defend against them. Then he came up with an inventory of offensive weaponry he thought might catch his opponents off-guard.
Agamemnon was rectangular, with a low center of gravity to prevent flipping. It ran with six wheels on dual belts for control and maneuverability.
On the front a retractable arm spun twin carbide-steel blades (he tested the blades against one-fourth-inch steel). A rear-mounted 12-inch air cylinder fired and retracted a spear similar to those used in deep-sea fishing, also capable of piercing metal.
The Ag’s ultimate strength, however, was its powerful motor.
If all else failed, Danknick could bulldoze his opponent into a corner. “A dull but effective way to win a match,” he says.
After his victory at the 1996 competition, Danknick began working on a walking robot for ’97–Hannibal-8–so named for its eight spidery legs.
Many robot designs are inspired by bugs, Danknick says.
“Think of a cockroach, which can lift many times its own weight; there’s some pretty awesome mechanics going on there. The design of God in nature is strong and efficient, yet light.”
But Danknick soon realized that with Hannibal-8 he’d bitten off more than he could chew for one year. He set it aside in favor of something less complex.
He started work on Alexander, emphasizing speed and visual intimidation. It has three menacing weapons:
- A pneumatic “punch” has 900 pounds of pressure behind it and a 200-degree rotational arc.
- A saw arm, called the Edger because its 8-inch carbide-steel blade, cuts through most metals with the ease of a lawn tool through grass. It rotates 180 degrees and extends 34 inches.
- A rear-mounted steel cable releases from a hidden storage compartment at the push of a button. The cable’s 8-foot length can wrap around less balanced adversaries and flip them over with a quick jerk.
The most fun Danknick has had, he says, is not on the battlefield, but in the community. He has attended science fairs and museums, robot club meetings, elementary schools and university campuses, promoting science and trying to whip up enthusiasm about robotics.
“I brought the Ag to a first-grade class for robot week last year. Blades spinning and rocket ejecting. . . . They thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen. One kid asked how he could get into robots. I told him to do his math homework, build with Legos and keep a bug jar.”
In fact, Danknick would recommend that methodology to anyone interested in robotics, no matter what their age. “That’s the only way to get robots out of the world of fantasy and into reality. It’s the first step.”