In games, mech pilots often have the advantage of dying in their seats. With spider web mech windshields with bullets, overheated guns, depleted uranium energy cores, and bipedal legs that leak hydraulic fluid in any landscape they fight in, often these mechs explode and players respawn on the map. Monitoring, Fall of the Titans, and various Call of Duty iterations use multiplayer combat to their advantage (and suspension of disbelief for the player). It’s all fun and playful, but how often do you think about the long-term safety, maintenance, and unforeseen side effects of giant robots? If these robots were real, a lot would change and a lot could go wrong.
While fictional mechs come in all shapes and sizes, the widely used humanoid and massive mech design is most common in games and in life, as we’ve seen with actual attempts to build the types of giant mechs that we love in fiction. Of The Japanese Gundam in 1: 1 scale in Diver City at Duel of giant robots between the United States and Japan in 2017 to popular films and media like Pacific Rim, Power rangers, and even the campy Jox robot, the mech designs that capture our imaginations are all essentially armored humanoids, right at the waist. But all four of the experts we spoke to, from real machine builders to heavy machine designers, agreed that the famous humanoid form should be discarded right off the bat.
“Why are two feet zero? Asks Jon Pope, an industrial designer of heavy machinery. “Unless you put really huge feet in it, it’s really flotation and soil compaction. Few urban environments are built for the heavy and concentrated footsteps of a robot like Fall‘s Liberty Prime – the roadway would collapse and basements or tunnels would turn into massive potholes.
Natural environments wouldn’t fare much better, according to Erol Ahmed, communications director for Integrated robotics, an unmanned construction robotics company. “The ground is not solid; they have different weight densities if it is sand or clay. Testing materials if a battlefield is silt clay or loamy sand, and then redistributing the weight accordingly, isn’t exactly a bipedal robot’s most pressing goal during combat, but it should be if his pilot wanted to survive.
Pope sees three solutions to bipedal robots in real life: massive shoes comparable to metal clown boots, multi-legged robots that look more like caterpillars or worms, or a robot with steps instead of legs. “Ultimately I would say if you want a robot that is going to destroy everything, I would build a giant bulldozer,” Pope said. He designs giant bulldozers for a living; the design makes sense. Shagohod, the Metal Gear Solid 3 mech known as the Treading Behemoth, was designed to use screw treads instead of Metal Gear’s chicken thighs, and the design is much more stable (i.e. until Solid Snake bombards him).
But especially with treads, piloted mechs can be hellish for riders. According to Jon Pope, operators of industrial vehicles, such as wheeled scrapers or log skidders, can only operate machines for a few years. “After that, your body literally can’t take it anymore,” he says. Demolition vehicles can be the same (and similar to mechs in their purpose of destruction). “You constantly hit a wall all day,” Pope says. “It can be a day-long carnival ride.”
This matches the experiences of two game-inspired mechs that were built in real life. When Matt Oehrlein, CEO of the giant mechanical company Cigarette butts, started designing the two mechs his company built, his northern stars were the ones flown in the 1995 computer game MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. Although the game’s mechs are bipedal, the stability shifted him to treads, and his mech rocked a lot while sitting in the pilot’s seat. Starting and driving was like riding a roller coaster or a carnival merry-go-round, and less like driving a vehicle. “The motor starts and it roars and the whole robot is shaking. There are big hydraulic hoses with 3000 psi hydraulic oil going through them and they’re, I don’t know, a foot away from your spine. If that pipe bursts, very bad things happen, ”says Oehrlein. “Most of the fears stem from the unreliability of the system. “
Unreliability is a serious problem for mechs of all sizes, even with what we might consider “simple” weapons used in robot combat competitions, such as Combat robots. Fins, spinners and pliers are complicated tools that could be damaged while playing, according to Combat robots Judge Lisa Winter. Throughout the show, robots break down and operators don’t know why. Adding flamethrowers, ion cannons, and large rocket missiles to already complicated giant robots would likely only lead to more inexplicable mistakes and failures. Mechs with simpler designs and fewer moving parts make the most sense to rebuild today: think Half-life‘s Dog or Extraterrestrial‘s Power Loader, for example.