Hemel Hempstead's robot building teen
PUBLISHED: 12:15 05 September 2018
Alan Peebles, 30 Robert Kay Place, The Inches, Larbert FK5 4FQ (07973 706009)
A Hertfordshire teenager inspired by a fresh new TV series built a robot out of scrap with his dad and brother. It would start a 20-year adventure watched by millions around the world
There’s something oddly satisfying about watching little machines taking chunks out of each other. I’m watching an episode of Robot Wars, the long-running cult TV series which, after a comeback, was axed earlier this year, inducing howls of protests from its loyal followers.
The peripatetic show was originally broadcast on BBC 2 from 1998 until 2003. After a stint at Channel 5, it was brought back to the Beeb in 2016. During its peak in the ’90s it had regular UK audiences of six million and was aired in 45 countries. The format was simple – teams of amateur engineers, ‘roboteers’, built radio-controlled robots to combat one another and a professional fleet of super ‘house robots’ in an obstacle-strewn arena that looked like something out of Mad Max. Cue lots of bashing, cutting, flipping and general destruction.
Watching the first series, hosted by a hyperbolic Jeremy Clarkson and Philippa Forrester, was a 19-year-old from Hemel Hempstead who was studying model design at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘We thought it was brilliant, it captured our imaginations,’ Anthony Pritchard remembers. ‘We thought we could have a go, so we built our first robot in June 1998 and went for auditions in series two.’
The team consisted of Anthony, his brother Michael, their father Edward and childhood friend Kane Aston. ‘I was 19, but my brother and friend were only 16 and the youngest when we first started. Now, 20 years on, we are the stalwarts and are one of the only original teams left still competing on the live circuit and from the TV show.’
The idea for the team’s robot came from The Simpsons – in one episode Homer buys an RV named Ultimate Behemoth. The team’s Behemoth became one of the longest-running competitors in Robot Wars, distinctive for its black and yellow striped scoop used to great effect against opponents to lift, flip and push. Despite being one of the most successful robots on the show, it was also known to be one of the unluckiest, especially at the ‘hands’ of the aptly-named house bots Sir Killalott and Matilda.
Anthony says the first version of Behemoth was pretty basic. It was constructed from an old wheelchair donated by neighbours and metal shelving. The shelving company, Dexion, was based in Hemel so the group were able to get some ‘freebies’ for the project.
‘The electronics were very rudimentary,’ explains Anthony. ‘The pneumatics were powered by a SodaStream bottle I nicked from my gran. The joystick used to move the wheelchair was retrofitted with radio controlled car servos and bits of Meccano and we used the SodaStream system to fire the bucket. It was very, very basic but it worked.’
Their first challenge was to get the robot to right itself when tipped over. Anthony says, ‘It wasn’t really a thing that was thought of early on, but then it became more and more of a necessity. It took us about 12 years to get it perfected.’ Behemoth also developed in other ways. ‘The drive system and specifications have evolved, batteries have become lighter and we get more power to weight ratio,’ Anthonly explains. ‘As we progressed we transferred to titanium, instead of the shelving, to where we are now, which is a full computer drawn robot, water-cut, laser-cut and sheet folded. Behemoth has even gone through water.’
Although the team secured discounts here and there, sponsorship wasn’t allowed so they had to be self-financing. Anthony says, ‘It’s different out in America with Battlebots (which allows sponsorship). With sponsorship we would have been able to use more high-end parts, you get more reliability and that allows you to progress and develop more. When you’re designing it yourself you have to think can I afford that? You’re putting it in an arena and it’s going to be all smashed up.’
The first robot took three to four months to design and make. For last year’s series the team had just six weeks to get the robot up and running. This was fitted around work, often over long evenings and weekends.
So what made the programme so popular with viewers? ‘There used to be Scrapheap Challenge and those sorts of programmes but now you haven’t got any engineering elements for kids to watch. When we go to the live shows around the UK, it’s surprising how many kids aged seven or eight come up to us and know all about our robot. They have studied everything about it and they’re building their own and learning the engineering side. In the last few series there where quite a few girls teams.’
An offshoot of the show’s success was taking it from the TV studio to live stage shows, including at Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre this month. It may be the end of an era however. Anthony says without the TV show ‘you don’t get the wider audience’. The last series also had a behemoth of a competitor: ‘It was pitched against Blue Planet, which is almost impossible to compete against,’ Anthony says.
He has relished the engineering challenges the show has thrown up. ‘Just learning how to solve a problem, especially the mechanics of a lifting system, is quite a feat. There’s lots of little aspects all the way around the robot that you have to join together to create something that will work and last in the environment that you’re taking it into. Everything is bolted together like a big Meccano set that allows us to change panels over and do quick repairs.’
Career-wise the programme has let him think outside the box. Anthony has designed toy prototypes such as the Dr Who models for Tomy and Hasbro. He also designed the mechanism inside Teletubbies toys that made them wiggle their legs when pushed over. ‘As I designed all the mechanisms for these toys I took what I’d learnt from the robots and pushed that into my job, as well as pushing what I’ve learnt at work into the robots, so it’s worked out quite nicely.’
He now works for Curvature Group and the models have got bigger. ‘My main thing now is full-size cars. I design the prototype for the show or concept car. Rather than a real car – where you see supercars at motor shows displaying cars of the future or concepts – we create the exterior model just to show the design.’
Although they were long days, he misses the buzz of the Robot Wars filming and the real sense of achievement of competing against 30 teams. Anthony and his team also went to America to take part in Battlebots and appeared on BBC 2’s Mechannibals, in which they built a dog feeder and washer out of scrap over a weekend. So with all his TV appearances, has he become a celebrity? ‘I was in Hemel a few weeks ago and someone asked for a selfie, my fiancée had a laugh about that one!’
Does he think the show could make a second comeback? ‘To encourage these shows it would be better if they let companies get involved. But building something reliable is the key element and that, I think, people are not quite seeing – it’s getting hands on, getting the mind ticking, trying to create something from nothing and working to solve problems.’
He adds that getting schools involved woud be fantastic. ‘There’s a company called Roaming Robots with extreme robots and they go to schools demonstrating robotics and getting the kids to build little robots and play games with them, learning a basic engineering side.’
The 41-year-old recommends Meccano and Lego for youngsters as well, to give them a grounding in engineering, which is where he started. He also suggests checking out the Fighting Robot Association (fightingrobots.co.uk).
As for the future, Anthony and the team are toying with new robot designs and plan to go back out to the States to compete again in Battlebots. And when at home he indulges his passion for Land Rovers and radio-controlled trucks. Home, abroad or on tour, the man is model mad.
See Anthony’s latest Behemoth, Evolution 9, competing at Robots Live at Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre on September 22-23