It truly is robot-fighting time

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

There’s a lot of dumb TV out there. Thus, I hesitate to explain that one of my favorite shows is about fighting robots. But I also think there’s a lesson in this program that would reinvigorate northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. 

“Battlebots” wrapped up its tenth season on the Discovery channel recently. The New Zealand bot “End Game” won the sport’s coveted trophy, “The Giant Nut.” (It is as advertised). 

These robots aren’t like Rosie from “The Jetsons” or C-3PO from “Star Wars.” There’s nothing humanoid about them. Most are like 220-pound remote control cars with spinning blade, giant hammers, crushing jaws or even flame throwers. Operators control the machines in fully contained arenas. Within the battle box, high grade steel may be shredded like styrofoam without harming any humans in the process.

What I’ve come to love about “Battlebots” is the fact that very real human skill determines the outcome of the artificial robot completion. Robot fighting combines the excitement of boxing or MMA with the strategy of car racing, where pit stops often determine the outcome of a close race. It’s a little like Paper Rock Scissors, too, where a certain design can easily defeat one kind of robot, but matches poorly with another. Anyway, after a winter of watching the Vikings and Timberwolves, fighting robots hit the spot. 

In many ways “Battlebots” provides a better human competition than physical sports.

Even among athletic people, few are big enough to play pro football, tall enough to play pro basketball, or coordinated enough to hit a 100 mph baseball. Pro sports can become a spectacle of genetic freaks. They’re fun to watch, but hard for most people to identify with. This is only exacerbated by the fact that pro sports is funded by commercials that sell us food and drink that will make us far too fat to even try.

Not so with “Battlebots.” That’s not to say that it’s easy, or that just anyone can do it. These robots are expensive and require tremendous amounts of creativity and work to build. But unlike physical sports, the skills involved in making a successful fighting robot translate to many different fields. 

Engineering is a cornerstone, of course, but so is marketing. Robot fighting sponsorships often go to the bots with the best stories. Organization and teamwork are required to repair and reconfigure robots in between matches. A robot torn to shreds in one fight can be reassembled and made to win after just a few hours. This is much more like the realities of the working world, from the military to the mines to the development of a new software product.

Though there are no true meritocracies in this world, Battlebots comes close. An 11-year-old boy led a very successful team the past season, while a team from a community college defeated one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though the gender gap remains far too wide, women-led teams are becoming much more common than a few years ago. 

I wish my point in all this was just to recruit a team of robot builders from the Iron Range. (Not a bad idea, by the way). Rather, my point is that the skills involved in this competition might be more relevant to our region’s future than our current youth sports obsession and the endless lamentation of our right- and left-wing political extremes. 

Consider, too, what we already have: One-hundred and twenty years of engineering experience from the mining industry. The Iron Range Engineering program in Virginia and Grand Rapids. The Iron Range Makerspace in Hibbing. Robotics teams at high schools across the region. These are small, scrappy operations in some cases, but we have many untapped resources right here in our backyard. “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is a popular buzzword in education; so why aren’t regular folks using it to have fun, make money and create jobs? 

Here are some daunting facts to consider. 

We are ten years from electric vehicles supplanting most of our gas cars, and maybe not much longer from those cars driving themselves while we play games on our phone on our way to work. (Where will we work?)

Mines that continue operating on the Mesabi Range will invest in autonomous trucks within our lifetimes. We know that the any solution for the dwindling iron ore reserve at Hibbing Taconite will likely involve conveyance of ore. This may employ another kind of automated system. (Who will run those systems?)

Those who fear losing jobs over solutions for climate change never seem too worried about the fact that we’ve already lost thousands of jobs in the past 30 years to automation. That means robots. And not just in mining, but across the entire economy. (Who makes, sells, and operates those robots?)

If “robot fighting” means “resisting the future,” we will lose as surely as if we tried to punch the spinning blades of a Battlebot. It can spin all day and we only have so much blood to give. Rather we should finally learn that the future belongs to those who innovate, master, and command technology. If we do that we might finally imagine a prosperous future in northern Minnesota, one that we can control with the artful touch of a master bot driver. 

Not easy. Hard. But that’s what will make winning feel good, whether that fight happens inside the arena or right here in our community.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 21, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe Musich says

    Well that drove a rise in me for the joy of vdeo games I put aside about ten or so years ago. There is also room for more tales like Bradbury and Asimov’s stories related to the teaching of a code to robots about the need to sevrve the human. One of my favorite comicbook stores of all time is titled Judgmnet Day. It was in a comic in 1953. I was too young to recall seeing it at the Kitzville Musech Grocery. It is the tale of an observer coming to a robot planet to make a determination if it’s robot inhabitants make the cut to be a part of the Galactic Federation. Essentially the planet does not for the all too human reason of competitive class separation. Robots need to have a consciene and for that to happen their human operators, creators need to exhibit theirs. I certainly hope that if money is thrown hand over fist at Stem education that classics and humanities are embedded into the effort. My classic professor pals at the U will easily inform that is not the case. I will leave it to the reader to guess wgo gets the ***** end of the stick. I am of the opinion one of the undiscussed contributors to climate change is the “competitive” desire for more. Oh but do not get me wrong I love the toys. My debit card demonstrates that fact.

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