This past February, the Syfy channel premiered a new robotic combat series unlike anything seen on TV before. The Robot Combat League (RCL)
featured 12 six foot tall, 700+ lb, hydraulically
powered humanoid robots fighting each other in
hand to hand combat. The RCL has been likened to
super-sized Rock’em Sock’em robots, and the hit
movie, Real Steel. All of the robots were designed and
built by robotic combat legend Mark Setrakian.
Each robot is piloted by two humans: a Tech that
controls the robot’s translational motion; and a Jockey
that controls the arms and torso using a motion
capture exoskeleton. The 24 contestants chosen for
this tournament came from a wide variety of
technical, athletic, and military backgrounds.
After the first round of combat, SERVO Magazine
was able to sit down with Ross Mead — one of the
pilots of the robot called AXE. Ross is a Computer
Science PhD Research Fellow at the University of
Southern California, specializing in autonomous robots
that understand and use body language in social
interactions with people. Ross has been involved in a
variety of robotic competitions since 2000, and serves
as a mentor to kids by teaching robotics to students
in kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade — all
around the world. His RCL partner was Andrew “The
Squid” Montanez, a professional MMA (Mixed Martial
Andrew is proud to claim that the only jobs he’s
ever had have involved fighting and teaching martial
arts. Andrew hosts the popular You Tube show, MMA
Surge, where he instructs fight fans on bone-crushing
moves. He is also a fight choreographer and stunt-man on Hollywood sets.
SERVO: Ross, can you start by telling us a little bit about your
background in robotics?
Mead: I’ve been working in robotics for over a decade. I
participated in my first robotics competition in high school, and
have been doing it ever since. I received my B.S. in Computer
Science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE;
www.siue.edu) under the advisement of Prof. Jerry B.
Weinberg. There, I conducted research on multi-robot formation
control ( http://roboti.cs.siue.edu/projects/formations/);
ontology-based communication protocols for multi-robot
coordination; autonomous transportation systems and mixed-initiative interfaces with a self-driving golf cart; and integrating
traditional and legged robotics into K- 12 educational outreach
activities ( http://roboti.cs.siue.edu).
I am currently pursuing my PhD in Computer Science at the
University of Southern California (USC; http://robotics.
usc.edu/interaction). I work in the Interaction Lab where I
develop models and algorithms for robots to autonomously
understand and use body language in social interactions with
people. This work is targeted at therapeutic interactions with
populations with special needs, such as children with autism,
people in post-stroke rehabilitation, the elderly, and people with
SERVO: How did this help you during the filming of RCL?
Mead: My experience in robot competitions and outreach
helped me a lot in RCL. I’m used to working as a team,
troubleshooting problems, working under pressure, making
split-second decisions when things change or go wrong, and —
most importantly for a TV show — communicating technical
information to the general public. Also, my work in body
language really helped; I often have to annotate and analyze
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