Gearhead Gepetto

Tony Nelson

Jon Vandervelde may have the meanest, ugliest, and most dangerous children in the city. That's how he raised them--or, more accurately, created them. His kids have strange, menacing names: Chain-Gor, Drill-Gor, Saw-Gor, and, of course, that nasty little tyke Switchblade. They all reside in the garage of Vandervelde's south Minneapolis home. He doesn't let them out often--only when there's a tournament or exhibition. Then, their bellicose nature bursts forth and their father's eyes light up with pride.

Robots are hardly Vandervelde's only oddball passion. Seated at a table in a Washington Avenue coffee shop, Vandervelde--who is 37 years old and has a broad, ruddy face--opens an aluminum briefcase, from which he removes a curious set of architectural drawings. The specs are not for another robot child, but rather for a paying gig: a postmodern tree house he designed and constructed at the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum. It consists of three long, helical, arc-welded steel pipes that sweep skyward in easy spirals 25 feet to the crown. In other words, it is not your father's tree house.

Designing and making interesting things, especially interesting things constructed from metal, is what Vandervelde does. Because he is a natural at this, Vandervelde can be something of a proselytizer. If you sit and talk with him long enough, he will convince you that you can--and should--build a killer robot. Why? Because killer robots rule.

For the past several years, Vandervelde has been the chief impresario behind Twin Cities Mechwars--the area's number-one promoter of metal-on-metal combat. In Mechwars tournaments, the contestants come in an astonishing variety of forms. Operated by remote control, they can weigh anywhere from 12 to 400 pounds. All are designed with one thing in mind: to give and absorb as much punishment as possible.

In terms of format, the competition is essentially a one-round boxing match. Instead of a ring, the combat typically takes place in the confines of a Plexiglas cage. There are other differences, too: no meddlesome referees, no brain damage for the human participants, and, almost invariably, a devastating knockout.

The roots of robot fighting date back to the early 1990s, when a bored, out-of-work Hollywood special effects guy named Marc Thorpe began tinkering with some old, junky vacuum cleaners. His initial efforts were primitive: two vacuums pimped out with controls from model airplanes. Human nature being what it is, it wasn't long before the robots were set against each other in formal combat. Pretty soon, Thorpe and some like-minded friends were regularly gathering in his living room, where they placed wagers on their robots' pugilistic abilities. From there, it took off. Within a matter of a few years, there were three weekly cable network television series devoted solely to robot combat.

By 1999, Vandervelde had decided that the Twin Cities market was ready for its own tournament. On a whim, he spent $49 on a classified newspaper advertisement, calling for anyone interested in fighting robots to meet at a coffee shop in Minneapolis. Sixteen people showed up. "The first meeting was pretty weird," recalls Vandervelde. "Big Daddy was there. He was a big, rough-looking guy with a shaved head who made Holidazzle floats with his girlfriend. A lot of the people who build these things are either frustrated inventors, techno-fetishists, or psychotic loners."

Big Daddy never did build a robot. He left for Burning Man and, as far as Vandervelde knows, never came back. A lot of other people did. Digger, TATU, Death-via-Hammer, and several other decent robots came out of the first meeting.

"We held the first Mechwars on some railroad right-of-way land near Lake Street and Hiawatha. I took a backhoe and dug a pit and had the robots fight down there while the spectators looked down from the top," recalls Vandervelde. "We sold about 400 tickets. The event was out in the open and we had no crowd control at all. There were around 800 people eventually, climbing on scaffolding to get a view, and watching from the top of the railroad cars."

The coolest robot Vandervelde ever saw in action was a beast called Millipede. Millipede didn't move on wheels; instead it had little legs. A lot of them. The designer outfitted this creation with a special cable that he attached to the top of the battle cage. As a result, Millipede could hoist itself up and down on the cable. So it would swoop down on other robots, smash them to pieces with a spinning, circular hammer, and then, spiderlike, hoist itself back up out of reach.

For every Millipede, there are myriad failures, robot fighters whose limitations made them the mechanical equivalent of boxing's punch-drunk, tank town tomato cans. Consider the case of Jay the Destroyer. Jay was a 700-pound gasoline-powered robot. It had a hydraulic-powered pincer that could snap a steel pipe like a toothpick. But Jay was far too big to make it through the doors and into the cage. Bloated and overweight, it couldn't even make the weight limit.

So, Vandervelde says, Jay's designer chopped the robot in half and rebuilt it so it could fit through the doors. But after the Oprah treatment, Jay just wasn't the same.

The popularity of the sport goes up and down. "It's been down a bit lately," Vandervelde shrugs. "I'm leading a free robot-building seminar next Saturday [see for info] to get more people involved."

Ever the optimist, though, Vandervelde is convinced that the fighting-robot game will return to its glory days. "Maybe not next year," he says wistfully, "but eventually."

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