Robot Designer Takes Latest Creation DUCK! Into ‘BattleBots’ Arena

Posted On June 4, 2018 By Nicole Hopper

We recently talked with Hal Rucker, creator and driver of a robot named DUCK!, about Discovery Channel’s “BattleBots” series, why robots are a family affair, and how rapid manufacturing played a key role.

Describe team Black & Blue and how your daughter got involved.

DUCK! is a new BattleBot by Team Black and Blue, which is myself (designer, builder, co-driver), Hannah Rucker (builder, co-driver), and wife Kathy Rucker (supporter and arena hammer operator).

Hal Rucker on Battlebots with DUCK!
Hal Rucker and DUCK! enter the ring on Discovery Channel’s “BattleBots.”

Hannah [Hal’s 13 y.o. daughter] first showed an interest in fighting robots when she saw videos of me competing in 2010. When Hannah was 6, I made two identical 60 pound lightweight bots called Black and Blue. They were simple and easy to drive. Hannah drove Blue and I drove Black. She turned out to be a good driver, and won a couple medals when she was only 7 y.o. After competing with Blue for a few more years, Hannah drove one of our heavy weights called Whoops!, and then she drove The Ringmaster in Season 2 of “BattleBots.” This season, I drive DUCK! and Hannah operates DUCK!’s lifter weapon.

At this point, I still design our robots, but Hannah participates in the builds and can describe all the components—what they do and how they work. “BattleBots” has been an excellent introduction to engineering for her and I think it will spawn an interest in STEM, but Hannah is still young and exploring a range of interests, including sports, theater, and just being a kid who has to get her homework done. Even if she decides not to pursue STEM later in life, she will have a basic understanding of how stuff works, how things are made, and how to use tools properly.

Describe the key features of DUCK!

DUCK! is a very simple and durable machine designed to survive big hits by powerful kinetic opponents. In the sport of robots, this is referred to as the “break your fist on my face” strategy. DUCK!’s active weapon is an electric powered lifter that can get under opponents and lift them off the arena floor.

Much of DUCK!’s design was driven by the realities of a very short build period. Because of other commitments, I only had about 28 days to design, build, test and transport DUCK! to the event. Therefore, my goal was to make a bot with a small Bill of Materials with parts that were duplicated and used in different subassemblies. For example, the drive shafts for the wheels are very similar to the drive shafts for the lifter, and all the shafts ride inside the same tapered roller bearing assemblies.

battlebots built by protolabs
Protolabs-sponsored DUCK! was designed and built in a few weeks using quick-turn CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication.

Similarly, I decided to build a lifter instead of a scary destructive weapon because there wasn’t enough time to test and rebuild. I only had one shot at getting it right, so I went with a simple design. The most interesting feature of DUCK! is the main chassis. It’s a unibody construction milled out of a solid billet of aluminum. This fabrication process is one of the reasons DUCK! is so strong and durable.

You used CNC machined and sheet metal parts from Protolabs to build your robot—can you expand on what those parts do in DUCK!? What parts were made?

The CNC parts are custom machine keys, custom motor faces and mountings, and wheel guards. The sheet metal parts are brackets that hold the electronic speed controllers. All of the parts are aluminum.

How was your experience with Protolabs?

I use Protolabs frequently when I’m making BattleBots and other projects when I need custom precision parts. Protolabs is incredibly fast, precise, and reliable. I’ve been counting on them to deliver CNC, sheet metal and 3D-printed parts for many years, and they have always done a great job.

How long did it take you to build DUCK!?

I designed and built DUCK! in just 28 days! That’s just crazy, and Protolabs was instrumental in making it happen. The entire machine was modeled in SolidWorks, and Protolabs makes it easy to upload CAD files and get real parts delivered to my door in just a few days.

What inspired the theme for your BattleBot?

There just wasn’t very much time to think about the theme for our new bot. One night when I was sketching ideas for the lifter, I noticed the fork on the front lifter looked a little like a duck bill. So I decided to shape it to look even more like a bill. Again, the schedule dictated the decision making process, but DUCK! turned out to be a very popular name that was easy to leverage in the design of uniforms, t-shirts, stickers, and other team handouts. 

How did you get prepared to compete?

Design and build like crazy! My daily schedule was to go to work at 4 a.m. to avoid the morning commute, have dinner, and then go back to the workshop until 9 p.m. I only had a couple hours to test and practice driving before loading up the bot and tools and supplies into the van for my drive down to the filming in southern California.

What makes you most excited to participate in the show?

Competing on “BattleBots” is like a popular amusement park ride: You wait in line a long time for an intense short ride. Every match is challenging and fun. The three minutes go by very quickly but key moments are burned into one’s memory. The 2018 season is an opportunity to test the design and see if a new bot built in a few weeks can be competitive. I’m also looking forward to co-driving with Hannah and see how well we can coordinate the movements of the bot.

Finally, participating in the show is an opportunity to meet up with some very smart, interesting and nice builders from all over the world. It’s insane how the participants get together to destroy each other’s creations, and then sit around afterward talking about how much fun it was.