Roseville native envisions giant robot combat sports league

Matt Oehrlein, a Roseville native, now lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he works full-time constructing giant steel robots with the vision of one day starting a robot combat sports league. (submitted photo)
Matt Oehrlein, a Roseville native, now lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he works full-time constructing giant steel robots with the vision of one day starting a robot combat sports league. (submitted photo)
When fully complete, each MegaBot will stand at about 15 feet tall and weigh about 15,000 pounds. Shown is the concept art for the MegaBot currently being constructed. (submitted graphic)
When fully complete, each MegaBot will stand at about 15 feet tall and weigh about 15,000 pounds. Shown is the concept art for the MegaBot currently being constructed. (submitted graphic)
Oehrlein takes a hands-on approach to developing the robots. In a video on the MegaBots Kickstarter page, Oehrlein can be seen getting splashed with paint as a cannon shoots 4-pound paint balls at the robot's steel grill. (submitted photo)
Oehrlein takes a hands-on approach to developing the robots. In a video on the MegaBots Kickstarter page, Oehrlein can be seen getting splashed with paint as a cannon shoots 4-pound paint balls at the robot's steel grill. (submitted photo)
MegaBots has three co-founders: Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein and Andrew Stroup. Cavalcanti and Stroup met last year while they were contestants in an engineering competition show on Discovery Channel called "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius." (submitted photo)
MegaBots has three co-founders: Gui Cavalcanti, Matt Oehrlein and Andrew Stroup. Cavalcanti and Stroup met last year while they were contestants in an engineering competition show on Discovery Channel called "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius." (submitted photo)

A 2004 Roseville Area High School graduate has his sights set on a new venture that can be summed up in three words: giant fighting robots.

Matt Oehrlein, 28, who lived in Roseville until six years ago, now lives in the Boston, Massachusetts, area where he works full-time on a company he co-founded in May called MegaBots.

Since then, he and two other co-founders, Gui Cavalcanti and Andrew Stroup, have built the top half of what will be a 15-foot, 15,000-lb. robot that will, if all goes according to the plan, become just one of several in a combat sports league akin to a paintball game for robots.

Oehrlein and his colleagues have launched a Kickstarter page to crowdfund their venture, with a lofty goal of raising $1.8 million to construct two robots.

The draw: participants will have an experience that incorporates a little from tank warfare, robotics, paintball and a touch of demolition derby.

Tournament style competition

MegaBots are "basically giant potato cannons," Oehrlein explained. Each robot will be equipped with an arm that launches four-pound paint-filled cannonballs at 120 miles per hour.

The robot will have a caged-in cockpit where two people -- a driver and a gunner -- will sit and control the robot. The cockpit is protected by a thick steel mesh, and even though the cannonballs will be launched at the robot, the final product will be very safe, Oehrlein said, adding the driver will still get drenched with the paint for a more realistic experience.

Pieces of the robot's armor -- as well as limbs -- are programmed to fall off as the robot is hit with the high-powered projectiles. Robots will have a "pit crew," of sorts, which will put the 'bots back together between rounds.

Ideally, Oehrlein hopes to be able to raise the $1.8 million via crowdfunding, but if MegaBots doesn't receive the necessary capital, he says the company will consider other funding options like approaching a major sports network like ESPN, a venture capitalist or a content distributor to see if there's interest.

"Or," he says, half serious, "A rich guy in Vegas who wants a private giant fighting robot league."

'Band nerd' turned engineer

A self-described "band nerd," Oehrlein says he played the trumpet from fourth grade until college, participating in both the pep and jazz bands at RAHS. Although youth robotics teams are widespread in schools now, they were not available when Oehrlein was in school.

Nevertheless, he pursued a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota, graduating in 2008.

He immediately began a two-year master's program in the same field, but with a focus on "control theory and robotics," he explained.

After graduating, Oehrlein took an internship, which eventually turned into a full-time position, at Eaton Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, he opened a "makerspace" called i3 Detroit, a non-profit workshop for carpentry, technology, metal working and crafting, among many others, where builders and artisans can go to create products, dream projects or collaborate on new ideas. Oehrlein, for example, created a mind-controlled flamethrower called the "Mindflame" at the makerspace.

Oehrlein says he became acquainted with Cavalcanti and Stroup through the broader makerspace community.

The two other co-founders met each other while filming a engineering competition show on the Discovery Channel called "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius." Cavalcanti and Stroup had the "seed idea" for the giant robots, and reached out to Oehrlein for his electrical and programming expertise.

The three got to talking and "converged on" Boston to make their dream reality.

"Boston is a good place to build robots ... there's a lot of robotics companies out here," Oehrlein explained.

Making dreams reality

Oehrlein described growing up seeing robots performing incredible tasks and stunts on computer and television screens in video games, movies and TV shows, something "every millenial kid grew up with."

Society's fascination with larger-than-life-size fighting robots can be found in recent action movies like "Pacific Rim," the "Transformers" franchise and "Real Steel." While those mechanized giants are mainly the result of Hollywood special effects, Oehrlein is working to make their capabilities real.

"I handle all the electronic and control systems," he explained. "I'm the neural system and the brain [of the robot]: any [data] it needs to take in, what it needs to move next, balance ... shoot the cannon so far, it needs to do all those calculations."

And making a robot walk on two legs -- and respond to paint missiles -- is no easy feat. Oehrlein works with software researchers and developers from across the country, scaling up coding and electrical work to fit a huge machine.

While two-legged robots may look menacing, Oehrlein says not to expect an "Iron Man"-style militarized robot, a concern sometimes voiced to him from those learning about MegaBots for the first time.

"The idea that the military ... is going to want to use them for weapons of war -- it's funny for us to hear that.

"Robots [on two legs] can trip on stuff easily, [and] they have 30 moving parts. They look a lot cooler [than a tank], but they're really not suited for military operations."

Kickstarter campaign

Oehrlein hopes to have the two robots built and ready to rumble by May 2016.

Oehrlein is confident MegaBots is unique. "Let me know if you hear of any," he said when asked if anyone else is working on a similar project elsewhere. "We're the only ones in the game."

The three co-founders have put countless hours of work into constructing the top half of one of the MegaBots, which has travelled to the New York Comic-Con where it received a "pretty positive response," Oehrlein said. Still, the trio still has one and a half more robots to construct, not to mention the cost of renting an arena, promotion and attracting spectators.

"Everybody loves the concept of giant fighting robots," he said. "Some of the more critiquing feedback has been, 'I'm not sure I believe it can be done.'

"[But] the sky's the limit," he says.

At the time the Review went to print, about $52,300 had been raised by 373 people with just 10 days left in the campaign.

Oehrlein promised to bring the action to Minnesota if the league becomes a reality.

"We'll be taking it back to Target Center with a big battle there," he joked. "Everybody's invited."

To find out more about the MegaBots Kickstarter project and see a video of the robot in action, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/megabots/megabots-live-action-giant-robot-combat.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.

 

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