Jailbreak, The Combat Robot

November 4, 2010

What happens when a 120-pound robot, ten Bradley students, and a healthy dose of curiosity are combined? Meet Jailbreak, the combat robot that legitimized a new student-led organization and gave Bradley University students the opportunity to apply classroom skills in the battle ring.

Curt Boirum ’08 is a master’s student, studying mechanical engineering at Bradley University. In the spring of 2008, he and three other engineering students formed COBRA, the Competition Oriented Bradley Robotics Alliance. “All of us had seen BattleBots and we all really wanted to do it,” Boirum said.

BattleBots was a televised combat robot competition filmed in California. Though it hasn’t been televised since 2002, the BattleBots company still holds annual tournaments. In a BattleBots event, remote-controlled and armored robots are placed in an arena to fight in an elimination tournament. The purpose of the fight is for one robot, or "bot," to dominate or disable the other.

Once the team was entered in an April BattleBots competition, they faced another hurdle: finances. The cost to assemble a combat robot is quite high, and the now 10-member COBRA team wasn’t sure they would be able to afford the trip to California until two weeks before they were scheduled to compete. Boirum and his teammates sent proposals to the Mechanical and Electrical
Engineering departments; their efforts, coupled with support from the Dean of the College of
Engineering and Technology, Dr. Richard Johnson, netted the team the $11,000 necessary to attend the competition. “We were literally finishing Jailbreak the week we were in California,” Boirum said. “We didn’t see much of California, but we did meet Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple, Inc.).”

The California BattleBots experience was exciting and eye opening for the COBRA team. “There’s a perception that all the robots get destroyed, but really no one does,” Boirum said. “Very few end totally disabled; most get stuck.” Getting stuck was twice the downfall of Jailbreak, whose powerful design had difficulty making turns on the smooth battleground surface.

Since returning from California, COBRA has grown in popularity; 57 new members have signed up for the 2010-2011 school year. Boirum said many members have had FIRST Robotics experience at the high school level. “We have a wide mix of academic backgrounds. Although most are mechanical or electrical engineers, we’ve had physics majors, theater and music students, and computer science backgrounds,” Boirum said. In the future, COBRA plans to compete locally at the Central Illinois Robotics Club “Bot Brawl” and also to offer competition opportunities for all students at LateNite BU events.