Why the cancellation of Robot Wars matters #BringBackRobotWars

(right to left) Myself, Tim Richardson, Claire Pollard and Tim Freeburn at Robot Wars in Glasgow

Last Friday, Robot Wars producers Mentorn Media tweeted that the BBC had declined to commission further series of the popular robot fighting series. Fans of the series immediately took to social media, especially Twitter, under the hashtag #BringBackRobotWars in the hope that they could find another channel to take it on. I am one of those fans.

I joined the British public in watching Robot Wars during the second series, back in 1998 or 1999. It was enthralling, it was exciting, it was brutal and it captured the part of me which had always been interested in mechanical and electrical engineering. I am the son of a precision engineering toolmaker, and I guess some of that had to rub off eventually, even if I decided not to follow my dad into the family business. Craig Charles brought his trademarked energy to the programme and seemed to be as ‘into it’ as the competitors. The teams were from a wide variety of backgrounds and their creations, which included the famous Razer, Firestorm, Behemoth, Tornado and, my personal favourite, Typhoon exhibited great engineering technique and innovation. When it was cancelled in 2004, the fans felt the loss and, when it was revived in 2014 with new hosts Dara Ó Briain and Angela Scanlon, we were equally relieved and overjoyed to see the series return.

The thing about Robot Wars is this: although the ratings were never at the same level as the lofty heights of Eastenders, or even something more comparable like Blue Planet (and its sequel), it nevertheless appealed to a certain portion of the UK population that wanted to see something a) entertaining and b) inspiring. There’s nothing quite like it on television, frankly. It is/was unique to UK audiences: a series that focused as much on inspiring the next generation of engineers as it did on entertaining the masses.

So how does this relate to the Raspberry Pi? Well, simply, without Robot Wars, it is very unlikely that there would be a Pi Wars, which is now the number one Raspberry Pi robot competition in the world (I know, right!) Back in 2013, when Tim Richardson joined me in organising Cambridge Raspberry Jam, we were looking for something new to bring to the community. Tim’s question about whether I’d seen Robot Wars, and my answer that I’d been watching it almost from the beginning, and his subsequent suggestion that we should try something like that, but with Raspberry Pis, was directly inspired by the series. (You can read a bit more about the origins of Pi Wars here). Although non-destructive (yes, yes, despite the name…), Pi Wars seeks to do exactly the same thing as Robot Wars: a) be entertaining and b) be inspiring. As I recently discussed with some of my Pi community friends: Pi Wars, just like Robot Wars, gives people a reason for doing. There’s a lot to be said for a competition date deadline to focus your mind and even more to be said for designing courses that challenge both the engineering/electronics skill of the competitors as well as their programming skills.

That brings us back round to Robot Wars. Many of the teams in the recent three series were inspired by the robots that previous teams had built. Although I can’t find the quotes right now, several have gone onto Twitter to explain that Robot Wars was one of the main, sometimes the primary, reason that they got into engineering and making. Now, I’m not saying that Robot Wars is solely responsible for a huge resurgence in our manufacturing industry or engineering base, but it has certainly helped!

There’s nothing like Robot Wars on television – although Scrapheap Challenge, also cancelled, came close – for providing that spark for young people to get involved with engineering. There’s very little on television, in fact, that focuses on STEM subjects, an area that we desperately need to grow and that our society, and economy, is going to increasingly rely upon.

The BBC have, in my opinion, made a huge mistake by cancelling the series, but it’s not too late for them to change their minds or for another channel to pick it up. The arena is still waiting in Glasgow, but it won’t be available forever. It’s vital that fans of the series get behind the campaign and, not to put too fine a point on it: #BringBackRobotWars!

For another perspective on this topic, take a look at Robot Wars Judge Dr Lucy Rogers’ editorial piece over at DesignSpark.

8 comments for “Why the cancellation of Robot Wars matters #BringBackRobotWars

  1. 22 March 2018 at 12:11 pm

    A great loss. Is there scope to have a fighting class of PiWars robots? Autonomous Pi Controlled Bots (limited in physical size to the current PiWars bots)? Or is this to close to Skynet?

    It would be an interesting challenge.

    • Michael Horne
      22 March 2018 at 12:25 pm

      We did have that thought at one point. But then we realised we _still_ didn’t want it to be destructive. There’s a car park outside the building for after-hours though :p

      • 22 March 2018 at 12:29 pm

        I suspect that it would be more humorous than destructive.

        Based on the size of the bots and the autonomous nature, they would spend more time looking for each other rather than hitting each other.

        I guess the trick would be to grab hold of the opponent, when you finally find it, so you could have a crack at hitting it.

        Creating the “weapon” for this years PiNoon has been a challenge (a fun one).

  2. Tom Kirby-Green
    22 March 2018 at 12:29 pm

    Totally agree with your point about inspiring the next generation of young engineers. The program was unique in that respect and slot can only be filled by yet more mainstream me-too content. Let’s hope someone picks this up, with the countries wretched decision to leave Europe we’re going to need all the home grown engineering talent we can foster to remain competitive and even relevant. Cancelling RW sends the wrong message.

    • Michael Horne
      22 March 2018 at 1:31 pm

      I completely agree with you, about Europe, about the need to foster home-grown talent and the wrong message!

  3. Brian Williams
    22 March 2018 at 1:20 pm

    The BBC seems to have lost interest in anything that isn’t furthering its cultural Marxist agenda. My guess is the audiences aren’t “diverse” enough for them – social engineering trumps robot engineering.

    There might be some scope for asking Amazon or Netflix to consider taking it on, like they did Top Gear. Personally, I prefer to spend my £140 on streaming where the propaganda is not so loaded.

    • Michael Horne
      22 March 2018 at 1:32 pm

      I’ve already said to myself that, if it was taken on by Netflix, that alone would be enough for me to subscribe!

  4. Bonzadog
    22 March 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Well, I an not too worried about robot wars being taken off.

    I would much rather see robot projects put to much more useful causes than simple destruction – mindless comes to word here, but that is exactly what a robot is 😉 .

    The only really interesting robot projects are the autonomous robots.
    I do not regard “robots” being remotely controlled as real robots.

    right now your turn!

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