Reality Check: CMU student, her partner fall in 'Robot Combat'


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For robotics expert Heather Knight, this was a special form of March Madness.

Ms. Knight, described as a "celebrity" by a fellow contestant on Syfy's new series "Robot Combat League," finally got her chance in the fight ring this week. As boxing fans can attest, footwork is a big part of any slugfest, and as robo-tech for the giant humanoid Medieval, Ms. Knight was responsible for making the big guy dance.

Teamed with athletic jockey John Peel, Team Medieval looked like the smart choice.

But their opponent, the taller, heavier, retro-looking brute Steampunk, was the Rocky Balboa to their Apollo Creed. Directed by Kyle Samuelson and Ashley Nunes, Steampunk took a beating in the first round but stayed in the game long enough to win a judges' decision.

Earlier matches in "Robot Combat League" have been brutal -- one robot collapsed at the waist and another lost its head -- but this was by far the messiest.

By the last of three rounds, both robots were gushing hydraulic fluid, and at one point Mr. Peel -- who controlled Medieval's upper body -- was getting splashed from his perch overlooking the ring.

"When the hydraulic fluid stays in the ring, it's not a problem," Ms. Knight said. "But when hydraulic fluid geysers into your face, like what happened to my partner, John, that's a whole other story. It got all over me, too. I still really wanted to win but in that moment I couldn't help ... laughing."

Ms. Knight, who is getting her doctorate from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, said that when she first heard about the show more than two years ago, she wondered how they were going to make it work.

The solution to stabilizing such heavy humanoid robots turned out to be a "T" crossbar anchoring them from the back.

"The 'T' bar is the hero of the show," Ms. Knight posted on a blog. "It really is. I don't think people realize how impressive it is that these things can take so many punches and not shatter.

"The robots are still able to walk and move and withstand punches, but they don't need to have complex balancing algorithms and things like that. As someone who was a mechanical engineer before I switched to electrical engineering and then just robotics in general, I thought that they came up with a really clever solution that still enables you to feel a very strong sense of character in the design of the machine."

The producers of "Robot Combat League" commissioned the design of 12 very different robots, with various strengths and weaknesses. It was Medieval's bad fortune to come up against one particularly well suited to compensate against its heavy armor via a superior reach.

"It's like playing Pokemon: Sometimes, you have robots with attributes that are well matched and sometimes, you don't," she said.

Ms. Knight added, "I might be biased, but clearly [we had] one of the coolest robot designs possible. Walking out there for the results, we really thought it could have gone either way.

"Congratulations to Steampunk, though. I wish them the best of luck."

The one-and-done tournament continues on Tuesday nights.

Elsewhere in reality TV

• Who knew Thursday was National Fragrance Day? RuPaul Charles, for one. This week's episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" (Logo, Tuesdays) celebrated with a challenge to create a new scent, then shoot a commercial advertising it.

Alaska was the winner, with Ivy Winters -- who was wildly inconsistent all season -- going home.

• Carsten Vollrath of Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen in East Liberty will appear on Food Network's "Chef Wanted" with Anne Burrell April 11. Four chefs will vie for a spot at the Austrian wirtshaus Blaue Gans in New York City..

• Syfy has announced there will be a Season 5 of its reality competition show "Face Off." If it involves special effects make-up, it will no doubt include at least someone from Pittsburgh or a Savini School grad or two. Filming begins next month for a summer broadcast. Stay tuned.

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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