Hebocons And Why They Matter

Everyone remembers Battlebots, and those of us feeling the pains of nostalgia have tuned into the recent reboot on ABC. As with the golden age of Battlebots, all robot fighting competitions eventually become a war between machines perfectly designed for the task. In the original run of Battlebots, this meant a bracket full of wedge bots, with the very cool robots eliminated year after year.

You don’t watch NASCAR for the race, you watch it for the crashes, and professional robot fighting competitions will always devolve into a few hundred laps of left turns. Fire and sparks are great, but there is a better robot fighting competition, and this time anyone can get in the game without spending years working on a robot.

It’s called Hebocon, and it’s billed as, ‘a sumo wrestling tournament for those who don’t have the technical skills to actually make robots’. The best translation I’ve seen is, ‘shitty robot battles’, and it’s exactly what robot battles should be: technical mastery overcome by guile, and massive upsets through ingenious strategy. You won’t get fire and sparks, but one thing is certain: no robot will make it out of Hebocon fully functional, but that’s only because they weren’t fully functional to begin with.

Hebocon gets its name from the Japanese: ヘボい, or ‘clumsy’. These are not technically adept robots, and at the first Hebocon at the Japan Media Arts Festival in 2014, a battery-powered car wearing an iPhone case beat the most obvious winner – a wedge bot that races across the ring. Crappyness trumps strategy, a wedge bot was defeated, and all is right with the world.

2015 Hebocon in Rome
2015 Hebocon in Rome

The basic idea behind Hebocon is to put two robots on either side of a 100cm x 50cm ring. The round starts, and the first robot to knock the other out of the ring wins. Technical immaturity is encouraged, with penalties for remote control (both wireless and wired) or automated operation. The best robot here is completely dumb; a wind-up car has a better chance of winning a Hebocon than a complex sumobot controlled by a Raspberry Pi. Someone who forgets their robot on the way to the competition is a favorite to win.

Over the last year, Hackaday has been to a few Hebocons, including events at Sparklecon and Layer One. At Layer One, contestants simply went over to the Radio Shack (yes, it was still open), bought something that looked like it could move, and built a robot out of duck tape and zip ties.

"Robot Barbie" from Portland Hebocon in May
Robot Barbie” from CTRL-H Hebocon in Portland back in May

This weekend, I will be the arbitrary and capricious judge of Fubacon, a Hebocon held at Fubar Labs’ new hackerspace in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Instead of simply putting the play field on a table and running a timer, the Fubar Labs crew will be hosting a build session filled with motors, batteries, and craft supplies. It’s meant to be an introduction to robotics, even if the crappiest robot wins.

For so long, robot competitions have been focused on the most capable, most elegant solutions with the most engineering behind them. You need not look at Battlebots for evidence of this. First robotics clubs are an amazing introduction to engineering for thousands of high school students, but even this doesn’t have the public outreach a Hebocon has. Hebocon is the robotics competition for the every man; an event where anyone can participate will inevitably get many more people involved.

It doesn’t have the fire, sparks, and spinning blades of death Battlebots, but if you want a good time, my money is on Hebocon.

28 thoughts on “Hebocons And Why They Matter

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one that noticed that wedge bots took over Battlebots (and any other robot competition) completely. I would love to see a robot fighting competition where every robot was required to have at least one active weapon, and wedges/ramps don’t count.

    I would also love to go to one of these competitions. This looks awesome.

    1. The reason wedges took over, was ENTIRELY due to the safety rules. Kinetic energy bots (spinning shell) would always take over without safety rules. Unfortunately it’s then a fight to see who can cram in the most power, weight, speed, strength…. basically cost. The viewer gets a better show…. but even two spinning bots smashing each other up gets old.

      Changing objectives is more entertaining. Like if robots had to pick up weapons in the ring and they didn’t last long… like Mad Max. Strategy would change on the fly.


        1. For a legged robot weight is a disadvantage, not advantage. Also, legs tend to be delicate mechanically complex things, you don’t want them exposed to kinetic weapons.

          I would however love to see a challenge in which legged robots have to navigate a difficult terrain, possibly shooting each other with lasers or trying to recover an object at the same time.

    2. *sigh* and most of the wedge drivers could hardly drive. SOOOO frustrating! Hell, half of them weren’t even well armored. Oh and spare parts. If you’ve got a cool ‘bot, bring two of everything and get it working a month before competition.

    3. Another way to defeat the wedgebot would be to make the battleground something other than a perfectly flat surface or at least add obstacles. Terrain or even changes in elevation would be cool. Of course that means it might simply change which bot dominates but at least it would be a bit more interesting. Better yet, change the whole thing and make it lap race and go mario kart style.

      1. I think an uneven terrain would make things more interesting. The robots would have to either be built to navigate the field, or be limited to small sections of the arena while the opponent could attack from above. This could encourage more sophisticated designs and make the simple box with fixed wheels and no suspension less effective.

        1. Robotica did this exact thing. I think it’s a good concept, but the show was terrible. Bots had to race through several obstacle courses and complete objectives, while being allowed to engage each other. Then the final match would be a full-on battle.

        2. Robot Wars had active arena hazards like popup sawblades and sections that randomly dropped into shallow pits for a short time and IIRC “house robots” that could only engage the contestants when they entered the house robots’ corners.

          1. Ah the Robot Wars “house robots” SOOO hyped, yet sooo fluffy. If Robot Wars was still running it’d give me a good reason to build a full scale version of my bot “Micro Vice.” I’d make sure it could drag Sir Killalot into the pit if he got in my way :D (see my name’s link)

  2. The less skill the better? The less development during the event the better?
    So basically it lets people say “I design and fight robots” while not requiring them to know, actually deterring them from learning, anything useful about engineering? It’s like what arduino does for programming…but actually worse.

    This is the most hipster thing I’ve seen on hackaday since the arduino controlled crapycheeno machine affixed to the bamboo bicycle designed to ride behind the post-modern band in the the steampunk transgender pride parade.

    1. You are missing the point. Its not about a competition that pits well-tooled and very skilled builder of robots against well tooled and very skilled builders of robots. Its about reinforcing the idea that –YES– “unskilled” crafters can build things: often with less tools than they imagined they needed.

      A Hebocon then incentivizes those to do so in the name of competition.

      For the more skilled builder it allows you think out of the box and experiment with low cost to failure – and revel in the glorious failure that comes from inventing on the fly. At the Sparklecon mentioned in the article, my team of 3 experienced makers spent half a day building a wedge bot from a plastic toy snow shovel, 2 RC Cars, and 2 guitar hero controllers (One controlled forward/backward motion per side). We lost terribly to 3 wind up toys duct taped to a plastic dinosaur made in ten minutes by a 14 year old: because we forgot to put in a suspension. and laughed the entire time. We tried to fix this with rubber bands, and a wad of duct tape. It did not work.

      But that kid: he beat a “real looking” robot with wind up toys and duct tape.. I doubt he will forget that.

      1. The original organizers think it’s about having silly silly fun. It’s an anti-culture to the ultra serious robot competition culture in Japan.

        I’m certain the kid will always remember his skill being superior to yours. For humility sake, hopefully he encountered more challenging combatants though. We don’t want him to think life is going to be full of lazy hipsters which he can steamroll…. although they appear to be “breeding-while-not-breeding” like crazy… so it might be.

        Setting the bar to entry low is one thing. Actively discouraging development of skill is detrimental.

    2. Wow, that is a very hipster thing. Except this is not hipster, this is just Japanese.
      This article is just about crossing your arms, shaking your head with a wry smile and remarking “Oh those Japanese, what will they do next?”

      1. …These people are not Japanese.

        Poorly copying different cultures is about as hipster as a Philly barista pretending to read Russian poetry while talking with (what he feels is) a ‘London’ accent, hoping someone notices his ‘authentic’ WWII hiking boots and over-sized 1960s hand-knitted scarf.

  3. The rules seem to be way to extreme for my taste. At least the rules i found say that your bot can be 50x50cm and up to 1kg, on a 100x50cm field. So you can basically block half of the play field and just need to push in one direction to win, if your power/traction overcomes the other bot.
    I’d rather have something between the hebocon and the large (expensive) battlebots that need massive security measures to let them fight in front of people.

  4. I did something like this with my uncle when I was 5 or so. He had a bunch of wind up robots and we had wrestling matches with them on the kitchen table.
    I’m glad this is making a comeback.

  5. Hebocon are a ironic competition, and you would get more point using originality. I’d use a smartphone as a ram, and a back and go spring toy to get it going. The side purpose of the smartphone would be to scream when it is hit, rigorously made with app inventor, copy pasting more example code as possible. Or a two servo 3d drawn walker with a troll face.

  6. What’s needed for spinning weaponry is a viscous coupling. A shaft and a tube with interleaved discs attached to each, stuffed full of silicone grease with a seal fitted where the shaft goes in would work. Unlike VCs used in all wheel drive systems on vehicles, this wouldn’t need to have real tight clearances. Ball bearings could be inside the coupling to support the shaft or they could be external to it. So many ways to design it.

    It just needs to provide enough drag to get the weapon up to speed, and keep it there as long as the power input stays on. When it hits the coupling will give rather than snapping a chain, burning or snapping a belt, bending shafts, breaking gears etc.

    Adjusting the design, number of discs, diameter, spacing, holes/slots or not, would be needed to tune it for the mass of the weapon. You want quick spin up for fast recovery between hits, but you don’t want it so stiff it can transmit damaging force through the coupling.

    1. The challenge of a spinner bot is a bit harder than just making sure the flywheel drive line has a good self resetting mechanical fuse. (V-belts or friction overload clutches work well) The biggest challenge of a spinner bot is Newton’s Third Law. Basically every time you hit your opponent, you hit yourself just as hard. Experienced spinner bots quickly learn how to cope with the shock, but new bots still often self-kill.

  7. I dont think that “ヘボい” exists in the japanese language… Especially since the first two characters are katakana and the last one is hiragana. “へぼ” is japanese for clumsy. The title of the show is ” ヘボコン” which is “Hebocon” in katakana because “-con” is a foreign word and therefore written in katakana.

  8. If you are in the New Jersey / New York Area come on down to FUBAR Labs this weekend to participate or just cheer on the participants. We have numerous registrants who never built a robot and who before registering commented to us that they never thought they could do something like enter a robot competition – even though they always wanted to. That is the point of Hebocon and why we are hosting Fubacon – to encourage people of all ages to try and have fun doing it. The key ingredient is FUN. People love robots and this is a way to help them gain an interest that they can continue on with. Come join us, have some fun as we are eager to see your “half-baked ideas in action!”

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