Time for Robot Theater

Last night, I watched ABC’s primetime showing of BattleBots, with my 15 year old son. While this show is billed as the ultimate bot reality TV, it is more about the builders’ backstories than the mechanical fighters. However, we do not have to wait too long for “Real Steel” to come to life, as a startup called MegaBots has just raised $2.4 million to bring “the robot-fighting stuff of manga and anime to a venue near you.”


MegaBots aspires to follow in the footsteps of Formula 1, UFC and other sports leagues. It has already engaged the MLB’s attorney to lay down the ground work for another organized entertainment organization. As an example of what’s to come, MegaBots challenged its Japanese counterpart, Suidobashi Heavy Industries, to a duel. It is important to note that the Japanese company existed years before MegaBots was founded in 2014.

The dual will be between the Japanese champion (Kuratas) weighing in at 9,000 pounds and the young American challenger, MegaBots’ MkII, at 12,000 pounds. According to reports, Team USA and Team Japan will face off at a date and venue that MegaBots has yet to determine. A sport like this will inevitably involve complex international logistics planning, as one can’t simply ship a 15,000 pound robot across international borders.

Azure Capital Partners General Partner Michael Kwatinetz said he backed MegaBots, in part because,“There is a giant opportunity for live events that stimulate people’s interest. That much is obvious from examples like the WWE or Nascar.”

The investor expects MegaBots to use the seed funding to build their robot for the fight against the Japanese team they’ve challenged; and to secure sponsorships, perhaps even a TV contract, for a program that tracks the team from building the robots to competing against Suidobashi.

If you can’t wait until MegaBots’ debut, the Drone Racing League, which also received funding of $8 million recently, could be more instantly gratifying.  Last month, the International Drone Racing Association (another drone league) and ESPN announced a multi-year distribution deal. The collaboration’s first event, the US National Drone Racing Championships will be broadcast live on ESPN3, an online channel (similar to ESPN8, the Ocho), in August, and then repackaged as a one-hour special to be aired elsewhere on the network. Today, the Drone Racing League has 1.8 million views on YouTube:

Drone racing involves participants flying remote-controlled drones against competitors at up to 80 miles per hour along looping courses that include hairpin curves and drops. Many races take place in open fields or open abandoned indoor spaces, where racers and spectators gather in rubble-strewn malls that are set up with gates marking the course across floors. Fans sit on bleachers behind protective mesh, passing around antenna-equipped goggles to see the pilot’s view. Big-screen televisions show off unique camera angles while glowing copters whizz by, emitting the high-pitched hum of weed whackers on steroids (similar to watching a Formula 1 Car Race).

Pilots spend many thousands of dollars on their aircraft, which can travel up to 80 miles per hour. Racing is a labor of love for these pilots. Many are born tinkerers and spend hours customizing their drones with new parts or building them from scratch. Some say they have spent more than $10,000 on frames, motors, batteries, propellers and camera mounts.

Ken Loo, a 31-year-old pilot known as Flying Bear, said he and his wife had put off having children so he could spend more time racing. He said he would give up his high-paying Silicon Valley job if he could figure out how to fly drones for a living.

High-profile races like the World Drone Prix, held last March in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, pay as much as $250,000 to the winning pilot. That could change if drone racing hits it big, attracting a mass audience and the sponsors who want to sell to them. Nick Horbaczewski, the entrepreneur who founded the Drone Racing League last year, thinks he knows how to pull that off.

The trick, he said, is making the audience feel the same thrill as the pilots. That is why his league lights up each quadcopter and its pilot’s goggles with matching colored LEDs, which help spectators track the tiny drones. It is also why pilots wear T-shirts emblazoned with nicknames like KittyCopter, Rekrek and Zoomas. Pilots’ back stories and slick editing build up the drama for videos put online.

The fast-talking Horbaczewski, 35, helped turn Tough Mudders, a quirky half marathon in which people pay to slog through artificial quagmires, into a more than $100 million business as its chief revenue officer. He sank his own money into the drone league last year, though he also raised millions from from the likes of Steve Ross, the Miami Dolphins’ owner; the talent business Creative Artists Agency; and the media giant Hearst.

But there is plenty of turbulence ahead. Similarly promising quasi leagues have failed before. Take professional paintball, which seemed like a surefire winner at its peak in 2005. A sport in which combatants shoot at one another across an obstacle-strewn field promised a built-in audience of gun enthusiasts and video gamers.

Paintball thrived for several years, airing its own show on ESPN3 and drawing sponsors like Budweiser, Monster energy drinks and the United States Army. Then manufacturers of paintball equipment consolidated and cut back on ad spending. Interest in the sport dwindled, and its main league folded in 2014.

Further complicating things, multiple drone-racing leagues are vying for attention. Horbaczewski’s major competition is the International Drone Racing Association, which is the league that announced last month that it would have a special on ESPN3 in the fall. There are a handful of other big leagues around the world, and grass-roots races pop up constantly.

The hodgepodge of organizations has bewildered would-be sponsors, frustrating some who found the experience of backing a race a sinkhole for time and money. Multirotor Superstore, an online retailer of drone parts based in Santa Cruz, Calif., already sponsors pilots like Loo with discounts and access to new gear at grass-roots events.

Of course, sport leagues are not the only form of entertainment we will be outsourcing to our robot overlords. For the past two years, Randy Scott Slavin has been running New York City’s Drone Film Festival (#NYCDFF), the world’s first event exclusively dedicated to celebrating the art of drone cinematography. The festival has been offering an international platform for filmmakers from every corner of the globe to exhibit their work in front of industry professionals and the drone community.

The film festival has been growing every year since its inception in 2014, just this year it hosted a 3-day event that culminated at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, which included drone battling and, yes, racing. According to their website, “the event sold out in 6 hours, received 350 film submissions from 45 countries, saw 5,000+ people in attendance over the festival weekend and earned over 350 million media impressions worldwide.” The 2017 Festival is going to be even bigger, and as worlds collide between the new drone racing leagues and cinematography, we will definitely see more of the NYCDFF in the coming months, stay tuned…

It’s funny, the rule of thumb for jobs that would be replaced by robots was dull, dirty and dangerous. Now that robots are entertaining us, the entire world seems upside down. Even Elon Musk has created a $1 billion nonprofit (do-good-not-evil champion) to protect us from nefarious programmers abusing AI by turning MegaBots into killer robots. The non-profit is also being backed by other Silicon Valley bigwigs, including PayPal founder (and Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, Stripe’s Greg Brockman, and incubator Y-Combinator founders Sam Altman and Jessica Livingston.

One of the first investments in this altruistic endeavor is an “OpenAI Gym” to get developers around the world teaching computer systems better ways to learn and develop more complex reasoning systems. At the new gym, programmers can train their bots to master things like the ancient game of Go or learn better ways to play Pac Man and Space Invaders. Programmers can also control simulated robots, teaching them how to walk, drive and, of course, entertain us.

In closing, I would like to share with you a robot maestro courtesy of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, playing its national anthem in honor of today’s 68th anniversary of the modern state’s founding:


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