PODCAST: BattleBot DUCK! Prepares for New Season
Perennial fan-favorite, DUCK!, is ready to take on foes large and small, this winter on The Discovery Channel’s popular program, BattleBots. Powered by Protolabs, the wily veteran of several seasons has some great new features in version 3.0. Explore how this defense-minded robot still manages to beat up on bigger, more aggressive bots. Guest: Hal Rucker, DUCK! designer and fabricator.
Steve: Hi and welcome to the Digital Thread Protolabs podcast that gives you insights about the latest and greatest practices in manufacturing. Over the course of the series, we're talking about new trends and manufacturing technologies and strategies, cool products and companies that are pushing boundaries with innovative ideas. And we'll provide some design tips to improve how you and your manufacturer work together.
Hal: What we did do was to bring multiple attachments that would bolt onto the front and back of the chassis. So, we came prepared to fight five different types of weapons, hoping that would cover most of the field.
Steve: I'm your host, Steve Konick, thanks for giving us a listen. To quote Bugs Bunny, “It's DUCK! Season!” Protolabs and Team Black and Blue are teaming up for a third time to bring our friend into the BattleBox on the Discovery Channel. And while other BattleBots seem to have cornered the market on ugly, DUCK! is all about maneuverability and a nasty beak that's ready to toss competitors aside. This bot is also a fan-favorite and certainly our favorite here at Protolabs. Joining us is Hal Rucker, along with his daughter Hannah, and the rest of the team, he's one of the brains behind DUCK! Great to have you here, Hal!
Hal: Great to be here. Thanks for including me.
Steve: Not everybody knows what BattleBots is all about, can you give us a quick synopsis?
Hal: BattleBots is a TV show where teams from around the world bring robots that they've built to fight in a big arena. The robots weigh 250 pounds, and it's a one against one competition like a boxing match or a wrestling match, and the matches are three minutes long. And the winner is determined by who knocks out the other robot. Very much like a boxing match. If both robots are standing at the end of the match, then there are judges who determine the winner.
Steve: Cool. Now I've looked at your competitors, I've watched BattleBots a lot and DUCK! looks nothing like them. We'll talk about that in a second. It's kind of a low rider, right? I mean, what were you thinking about when you came up with DUCK!’s design?
Hal: Well, DUCK! is a little bit unique in that it's a defensive robot. It doesn't have a big, scary weapon like most of the other robots have. DUCK! is designed to take a punch and keep going. So, our goal is to win the fight of attrition. We hope that the other bot breaks itself before it breaks us. So, the low-profile design, the very solid chassis is all part of that strategy. Some people refer to it as the break your fist on my face strategy. And I think that dictates a lot of why DUCK! looks the way that it looks.
Steve: And that brings me back to 2019, when you were battling Gigabyte, you just poked and poked and poked until you broke. You broke Gigabyte. It wasn't fierce. It was just strategic, right?
Hal: When a big spinning object hits us, it has to absorb its energy, as well. So rather than run away from the big spinning weapons, we drive ourselves straight into the big spinning weapons and hope that their energy breaks them.
Steve: So that was that was DUCK! 2.0 and there was a DUCK! 1.0. Needless to say, this year, we're up to 3.0. Can you talk about the differences between one, two and three?
Hal: Yes. One of the things that our team enjoys is bringing something new every year. So, DUCK! 3.0 is completely redesigned from the ground up. The only thing that's the same from previous DUCK!’s is the tires. Everything else is completely new. The chassis is made out of a solid piece of magnesium this year, so we're experimenting with that material. The motors, if I can geek out a little bit are brushless motors rather than brush motors. So, this was the year we decided to make that change and dive into that new technology.
Steve: What did that get you by going brushless?
Hal: The advantage of brushless is the power-to-weight ratio. They're incredibly efficient and can pack a lot of power into a small mass. The challenge with brushless motors is the controllers that make them go backwards and forwards at certain speeds are much more delicate and complex and difficult to program. So, it's a trade off. It's a little bit like going from a Honda Civic to a Ferrari. It’s really fast and really strong, but it's a little bit temperamental.
Steve: Gotcha. Anything else that's significant significantly changed with 3.0?
Hal: Yes. Our lifter mechanism is a brand new design. So, the lifter mechanism in the new DUCK! actually works very similar to how a real DUCK!'s beak works. It's hinged, at the jaw and it opens and closes like a duckbill. So, it behaves a lot like a duck and the most important feature, the newest thing for DUCK! 3.0, a BattleBots first, is that our robot actually quacks.
Steve: As it should.
Hal: Yes. When the lifter opens and closes, you can hear the DUCK! quacking audibly.
Steve: I'm looking forward to that.
Hal: Yes, we we refer to it as fowl language.
Steve: And after a while, that's probably going to get tiresome for you. But for now, it's great. One of my favorite battles is when you took on Cobalt in season four. It was another one of those examples where DUCK! just courageously outlasted the competition.
Hal: Yes, our battle against Cobalt in season four was what we refer to as the birthday miracle, because the day that match took place, it was my birthday and we had no right winning that match. Cobalt, which is a really well-made, extremely dangerous robot, was literally knocking us all over the arena. I think the announcers counted there were 13 times that we flew into the air and landed on the steel floor. And in a very dramatic moment, which was actually quite scary, they ripped our plow off of the robot, but we somehow managed to win. It was this war of attrition that we actually managed to win. Cobalt got high-centered on a piece of the floor and their wheels couldn't touch the ground and therefore they couldn't drive around. And that's considered a knockout, and we beat them.
Steve: It was brilliant. I and I have to say it was probably the funniest call I've ever heard on BattleBots, so it is up on YouTube, folks, if you want to take a look at it. The lifter mechanism that you mentioned did fly off and where the announcers took it from there was just hysterical. I'm still laughing at it.
Hal: Yeah, they did a great job.
Steve: They did. Do you have a favorite battle from any of the past seasons?
Hal: Hmm. Well, Cobalt is one of them. Uh, I think another favorite is with DUCK! 1.0, we went against Tombstone, which is one of the veterans who's very destructive. He's called the king of kinetic energy because he does so much damage with this spinning bar. And we almost beat him our rookie year. It was a very dramatic match, that's another one that would be good to look up on YouTube. We broke his weapon. He stopped. He wasn't moving at all. We only had one wheel of our four wheels left and I was managing to drive it around the arena on one wheel. Uh, so at that point, we thought we had beat him and we'd won. But then he magically and unfortunately came back to life. And then I stupidly drove over one of the arena hazards called a kill saw, and that broke one of the bearings in our one remaining wheel so we couldn't move and Tombstone could move and we lost. So, we were torn from the grips of victory against one of the most successful robots.
Steve: I'm intrigued by the fact that one of your favorite battles was a loss.
Hal: Yeah, for all DUCK!’s been through.
Hal: Well, when your strategy is to go in and get beat up,
Steve: You're going to get beat up.
Hal: The best matches are the ones you lose.
Steve: Well, last year you took the year off. Was that due to the pandemic or were you retooling DUCK!?
Hal: No, that was entirely due to the pandemic, we just weren't comfortable competing with people from all over the world and in one room. A lot of other teams made the same decision that year, which had some silver linings. One was it gave us more time to work on the new version of DUCK!. And another silver lining was it opened up a lot of spots for some rookie teams who might not otherwise have been able to make it. And those rookie teams turned out to be amazing. Some of the best matches that BattleBots has ever seen. So, in season six, those rookie teams came back and with a little bit more experience and they put on great shows. I think the matches in season six when it gets televised are going to be the best, best ever.
Steve: I'm looking forward to it. For those of you who haven't seen it, there—I seem to be plugging YouTube videos today—there's a really good video on YouTube that shows off DUCK!'s innards, all getting assembled prior to testing this season. A lot of thought seems to have gone into into DUCK! About how much time did you spend perfecting your design concepts, or was it more of an iterative thing?
Hal: Well, since DUCK! for season six was version three. We'd already done a lot of iterations in the previous two versions, so I had a good idea of what I wanted DUCK! 3.0 to be. So, most of the time went into refining the details. If you do have a chance to see the video, you'll see that everything fits in really properly. And the subassemblies all screw together very nicely. There's not a lot of airspace inside the new DUCK! It's really well planned out, and that's partly that we want to make the robot as dense as possible to survive hits as well as possible. So, a lot of time spent in CAD. Um, a lot of time 3D printing little prototypes, make sure things were fitting correctly and working properly. And then, because it was, we did skip the season, we had a lot of time to prototype ideas before building the final parts.
Steve: Any prototype that was on your own?
Hal: On our own and also through Protolabs. You built a lot of subassemblies and prototype parts for us.
Steve: Well, since you're you're a partner, you work closely with us…
Hal: That's right.
Steve: …on DUCK!. What are some of the parts that we manufactured for you, some of the more critical parts? And how was it working together on getting DUCK! finished?
Hal: Working with Protolabs on DUCK! 3.0 was essential. Since we're a small team, it's basically me and my daughter, to build something as complex as DUCK! on our own would be impossible. So, what did you make for us? It's a long list. Maybe I'll go by many fabrication processes. So, a lot of 3D-printed plastic parts. A few small but precise 3D-printed metal parts. That was actually the first time we've done any 3D printed metal. Um, some small CNC mill parts. And then some very large complex mill/lathe parts that are really difficult. In particular, the DUCK! bills, the top part and the bottom part were made by you, and there's a lot of complexity and things you'd look at and say, “You know, that might not work.” Holding the tolerances in the way that needs to be made might not be possible, but you guys pulled it off. Everything worked perfectly. I don't think it would be giving away anything to say that throughout the entire tournament, the DUCK! bill mechanism that makes it open and closed survived the entire season.
Steve: And that's part of that video. I yeah, it's really brilliantly conceived, just you'll see it in the video if you if you take a look at it. One thing I read somewhere was that DUCK!. At one point you had thought of the idea of having multiple bills for DUCK!—multiple lifters. I don't know if you're able to say anything at this point, because for those you don't know right now, the show hasn't aired, so we can't reveal things that have happened, unfortunately. But did you in fact do that? Where you have multiple bills.
Hal: No, there was only one set of bills that opened and closed and lifted other bots, but what we did do was bring multiple attachments that would bolt on to the front and the back of the chassis. And that was because we would have different types of armor or different types of forks. Or other things that I can't talk about that would bolt on the back or the front depending on what type of weapon our opponent had. Um, so we came prepared to fight five different types of weapons hoping that would cover most of the field.
Steve: I really can't wait to see how that turned out. So, you mentioned, I wish
Hal: I could talk about it.
Steve: I wish you could too, and I can prod you endlessly here. But I suspect that's probably not going to get anywhere.
Hal: No, I can't.
Steve: You, you said earlier. I think that that the chassis was made from magnesium. I read also somewhere that polycarbonate was used for the chassis cover. Was that true or was that one of those things that just came out of nowhere in an article.
Hal: Yes, so because each different configuration with a different attachment weighed different amounts. We had to make up weight in other places. Um, and in some cases, we weren't worried about being attacked from above. So, we made those lids out of polycarbonate. And put all our weight on the front and the back. In other cases, in one configuration, which was to be used against robots that attack from the top like a saw or a hammer. We put all our weight in the top. So, we had some titanium lids for people who attacked from the top and polycarbonate lids for people who pack from the sides. And a lot of different configurations.
Steve: So DUCK! is not a cheap date, is what's what we can say here. Were there any moments in in creating these parts and manufacturing them that proved to be difficult?
Hal: The most complex mechanism on the robot is the mechanism that makes the bills open and close. And there are some parts in there that were pretty difficult to fit into the space, and they required some pretty crazy machining to make it real and make it work and make it fit and make it make weight and all those constraints that are in a BattleBot. Um, I think the top bill and the bottom bill that link like a jaw were the most challenging in that sense. But we didn't we were never in a situation where we went from CAD to parts where they didn't just go together and work. Once we got it figured out in CAD and you guys shipped us the parts it was, it was beautiful. It was it was like Christmas every time we got a box from Protolabs, like tear it open and see if everything fit and worked, and it was the best part of the whole process.
Steve: Love hearing that. I know your daughter's involved with the team. You are Team Black and Blue. Is engineering her passion, as well?
Hal: I don't know if my daughter's going to go into engineering. She's pretty good at it, and we love doing it together, but I don't know if it's her passion. She's a junior in high school now, and she's on the high school robotics team and loving that. But I think a big part of it is just the social element of hanging out with friends and making stuff. I don't know if she has the passion, though, to do it as a profession, we'll see. I don't think she knows has any idea what she wants to do.
Steve: Typical Junior. Yes. All right, now this this…
Hal: As it should be. As it should be. We're not trying to push her into making any decisions.
Steve: Yeah, college is the time to figure it all out. So, this this question is coming out of left field and it's really the last one. And this is just because I'm a writer at Protolabs and it's always a struggle for me trying to figure out how to create sentences about DUCK! that don't just say DUCK!, DUCK!, DUCK!, DUCK!, DUCK!. So, can you spare me a little bit of pain trying to recreate and reconstruct entire sentences? Because I don't know. DUCK!’s gender does DUCK! share any specific pronouns?
Hal: Interesting question. I don't know why. But when we refer to DUCK!, we use the male pronoun.
Hal: So I think DUCK! is a he and a him. He's never talked to us about being gender fluid. I think until we hear otherwise DUCK! is a he.
Steve: And that is what I'm going to run with, and you've just simplified my life more than you can ever imagine.
Hal: Yeah, go with that. All right. If we hear any objections, we'll let you know.
Steve: Perfect. Hal, thank you so much for being with us here on The Digital Thread. It's been great.
Hal: Yeah, it's always fun to talk about BattleBots and DUCK!, and I just want to say thank you to Protolabs. Like I said earlier, there's no way we could pull this off without your help. And it's been a great partnership. Thank you very much.
Steve: And it's been a lot of fun from our perspective as well. Thanks, Hal.
Hal: Ok, bye bye.
Steve: And that's this edition of The Digital Thread. I want to thank our guest, Hal Rucker, from Team Black and Blue, the makers of DUCK! for hanging out with us. Don't forget to subscribe to future Digital Thread podcasts through one of our host sites Apple, Google or Spotify, or listen on our website. The Digital Thread is produced by Protolabs an international manufacturing company with locations across North America, Europe and Japan. Thanks for joining us today and we’ll see you next month.