RIT students to compete on ABC’s ‘BattleBots’ competition

They fly to California for taping in April; will be one of 52 teams on the show

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Team members Bennett Wong, Kevin Leonard, Lydia Yeckley and Art Kalb.

Four Rochester Institute of Technology students will be competing in the second season of BattleBots, the hit television show that pairs dueling robots that may shoot fire, twist metal and crush their opponents.

“We have a great driver and more than 30 years of combined experience in the U.S. FIRST Robotics competitions,” said Bennett Wong, a first-year manufacturing engineering technology major from Rutherford, N.J. “We’re not just a bunch of clueless college kids. We know what we need to do and are prepared to compete with the professionals.”

The other three students on the “Blindside Robotics” team are:

  • Art Kalb, a second-year student from Santa Clara, Calif., majoring in computational mathematics.
  • Kevin Leonard, a second-year student from Clifton Park, N.Y., majoring in mechanical engineering.
  • And Lydia Yeckley, a second-year student from Castalia, Ohio, majoring in mechanical engineering with a specialization in aerospace.

The team plans to fly to Los Angeles in April to compete. Eleven episodes will be taped during 10 days, with the first to air on ABC in primetime sometime in May. The airings will be scheduled around the Olympics and presidential election coverage, said Ed Roski, a co-creator of BattleBots. Winners receive bragging rights and a trophy.

“I’m beyond excited and beyond stressed about BattleBots,” Leonard said, who first got involved with robots in high school. He still volunteers as a mentor there. His team, from Shenendehowa High School, won the U.S. FIRST regional competition held at RIT in 2014.

“It started out as a little hobby and turned into a passion of mine,” Leonard said. “It’s a sport where everyone can go pro, and anyone with a little brains and ingenuity can win. Robots are inherently cool, and seeing something you created shoot baskets, stack boxes or, in this case, destroy opponents is an incredible feeling.”

Yeckley said the appeal of robotics for her is the end result. “Being able to go through the process of taking an idea, modeling it, testing it, building it, and finally seeing it to fruition is mind-blowing,” she said. “There always is a eureka moment with every build, and seeing the process just puts everything in perspective.”

She said the team has spent countless hours designing its robot and completing the application to be on the show. Now, they have to build it and seek sponsors to help raise $20,000 for expenses.

“Seeing how many people have really come together to help us out has been absolutely amazing,” she said.

Wong said the team came together after they held a meeting to see who may be interested in forming a team. All four had U.S. FIRST Robotic competition experience in high school.

“We are a perfect team,” he said. “We work really well together.”

They met with RIT President Bill Destler. “He loved the idea and offered support,” Wong said.

The team will be constructing its robot—the design will remain a secret until the competitions air—and will have it shipped to California for the show. The team will travel with several support staff who will serve as a pit crew to help make repairs and adjustments.

Fifty-two teams are expected to compete this season. Other than three teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology expected on the show, the Blindside Robotics team of RIT students is the only college-age students in the competition.

“We are by far one of the youngest teams in the entire competition, going up against professional builders who have decades of experience beyond us,” Yeckley said.

Roski said nearly 400 teams applied for the show this season.

“We go through the applications with a fine-tooth comb and try to pick who would be the best,” he said. “That’s not something we used to do. When we started (the show previously aired for five years on Comedy Central), we allowed everyone to compete and the winner was the last man standing, even if it took 10 hours or a match took a couple weeks. We had to figure out a different way to do it.”

Wong said those early shows inspired him to learn more about robotics and help start a team at his high school.

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said.

And Roski said that’s a main goal of the program.

“It’s really about encouraging young people to become interested in engineering and math,” Roski said. “In our society, heroes are made if they can throw a basketball. But we don’t make heroes out of these smart kids. As much as I want to be entertained by these athletes, these kids are the ones who are going to invent the next piece of technology to make the world better.”

For more information including how to help sponsor the team, visit the Blindside Robotics page on Facebook or contact ritbattlebots@gmail.com.