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Teen Wins at Robot-Fighting Event

When Little Rocky Run's Chris Atwood was in sixth grade, he saw the show, "Battlebots," about fighting robots, on TV and was impressed.

"I thought it was cool and decided I wanted to build one," he said. He built his first robot when he was in eighth grade and, since then, has built six more. And his latest creation, Whammo, just won him a bronze medal in an international robots competition.

Atwood, 17, a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, entered Whammo in Robogames 2007, and the competition was held, June 15-17, in San Francisco.

"OVER 550 robots were registered in the whole competition," he said. It was the first time Atwood entered Robogames, but his fourth contest overall.

He said fighting robots are organized into weight classes, ranging from one-third of a pound to 340 pounds. And he's built 3-, 30-, 60- and 120-pounders. They're remote-controlled and made of metal, plastic or a combination of the two.

Design and construction usually takes him a few months. Although, said Atwood, "I usually have ideas kicking around for a few years." He builds his creations in the basement of his home and gets inspiration from looking at other robots online.

"I either think of a way to improve one, copy an old design or come up with a new design," he said. "There's no rule against copying, and it wouldn't be the same robot, anyway, because you'll use different motors or different materials."

There are also various categories of fighting robots: Pushers, hammers, spinners, flippers and wedges. Whammo is a 30-pound wedge — a low, flat robot with an angled pusher on the front. According to Atwood, a wedge "gets underneath another robot, pushes him into a wall and slams him around."

Robogames is the world's largest, open-robot competition. And this year's event was held in the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion in San Francisco's Marina District.

"Anyone who has a robot can compete," said Atwood. "Most are built and designed from scratch, and there's a wide range of ages and experience [of their owners]. Fighting robots are usually built by people in their 40s who are engineers or have access to machine shops."

Robots battle against each other in three-minute matches inside an arena — a box made of 1-inch thick, bulletproof, plastic walls on a steel frame. Explained Atwood: "That's so, if pieces of robots are ripped off and flung, they'll stay in the box" and not injure any spectators. He said the boxes also have ceilings because some robots can throw others 10-12 feet into the air.

During competitions, he maneuvers his robot via remote control, and his parents, Eileen and Tom, are his biggest cheerleaders. "They support me, and my dad's a good sounding-board for design ideas," said Atwood. "I couldn't do it without them."

THEY EVEN wear special T-shirts designating themselves — and, hopefully, intimidating their competitors — as Team Sandman. That name is on the front, with the team motto on the back.

"Our motto is 'Our 'bots are your worst nightmare,'" said Atwood. "The sandman brings dreams, but we bring nightmares to the other teams."

Robogames is a double-elimination tournament; robots losing two matches are out. The first match determines whether they're in the winners or losers bracket. "You fight in the winners bracket until you lose," said Atwood. "Then the winners of the winners and losers brackets fight each other for the title."

All together, he was in five fights with Whammo at Robogames and loved the experience. "I just do the sport because it's fun, so I was really happy [to win a bronze medal] because it's the best result I ever had," said the teen.

Whammo's 4-1 record earned it third place, and one of its conquests was the whole-body spinner, Kilobyte, which had won this weight class at Robogames, three years in a row. Kilobyte even came in second at nationals, three years running.

"Kilobyte was the most feared, 30-pounder at the competition," said Atwood's mom. "But Chris fought him very cleverly and effectively, tapping him into the wall and keeping him on our tough plow [pusher], almost all the time."

She said Whammo caused Kilobyte to absorb so much of its own hits that, when Kilobyte managed to rip off Whammo's pusher, Kilobyte lost its own spin. "And without spin, a whole-body spinner is done," said Eileen Atwood. "We won the fight, 17-16, by judges' decision. It was thrilling. We are very proud of our engineer, builder and driver, Chris."

NEXT, ATWOOD plans to redesign Whammo to be even stronger and faster and then enter it into another competition. However, he said people with his particular hobby can be difficult to find.

"The closest person I know who does it is in Maryland," he said. "And the closest competition is in Pennsylvania." Still, Atwood — who's considering becoming a mechanical engineer someday — thoroughly enjoys building and competing with robots.

"You meet a lot of cool people who have similar interests to you," he said. And the best part of creating a fighting robot? Said Atwood: "After designing and building it, to finally see it move and actually work."