Heather Knight is accustomed to working with a 2-foot-tall, plastic-bodied humanoid robot named Data, a robot comedian that is part of her research on social robotics. As a contestant on a new Syfy series, however, she controls a much different beast: an 8-foot-tall fighting robot called Medieval.
Medieval is one of 12 robots built especially for Robot Combat League, which premieres at 10 p.m. ET on Feb. 26. The robots engage in arena combat under the control of two-person teams – a “robo-jockey” who operates the arms and a “robo-tech” who operates the legs.
“The robots are the real stars of the show,” said Knight, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute. She was the robo-tech for Team Medieval, paired with robo-jockey John Peel, a former college football player and personal celebrity trainer from Scottsdale, Ariz. “The actual mechanical engineering is really clever.”
Each robot was designed and built by Mark Setrakian, an animatronics and special effects expert who competed in TVs’ “Battlebots” and worked on movies such as “Men in Black.”
Knight spent several weeks in Los Angeles last fall, where the series was shot inside a warehouse near Downtown. Among the other competitors was Chris Hardouin, who was mentored by Robotics Prof. Illah Nourbakhsh while earning a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon in 2001. Hardouin, now a project engineer at Mattel, where he works on electronic components for the Hot Wheels line, also was a robo-tech, part of the team for the robot known as Scorpio.
Knight said the producers initially approached her about the series a couple years ago. It’s hardly the first time she’s gotten involved in the entertainment industry. In addition to her work with Data (including a performance at last fall’s Robot Hall of Fame induction ceremony), she has a company, Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City, which creates robot performances and interactive electronic art, and organizes the annual Robot Film Festival in New York.
She can’t say anything yet about how Team Medieval performed on the series, where the contestants are competing for a $100,000 prize. But she likes the idea of using robots as avatars, enabling people of various sizes and shapes to compete regardless of their own physical strength.
“It was a really cool competition,” she said. “I hope we continue seeing awesome robots on screen and stage.”