By Adam Overland, Photos by Marc Olivier LeBlanc
Matt Oehrlein combined a degree in electrical engineering with a passion for making stuff. What came of it? A pugnacious 6-ton robot and a crash course in showbiz.
Matt Oehrlein (B.E.E. ’08, M.S.E.E. ’10) dreams big. In fact, he believes that one day a generation of kids will grow up watching giant robots fight. They’ll be inspired, he says, to be engineers “because they see technology in action, and they go, ‘I want to make these things. This is so awesome.’”
If that sounds ridiculous, don’t tell Oehrlein. His dream is already in motion. Step 1: Build a giant robot. Step 2: Fight a giant robot. The company he cofounded, Megabots Inc., has built a 15-foot-tall, 6-ton prototype. And in July 2016 it will battle Japan in what is presumably a first.
After graduating from the U in electrical engineering, Oehrlein moved to Detroit, where he immersed himself in the local “maker” culture. Eventually he became the head of Detroit’s Makerspace, a community run do-it-yourself workshop he describes as a kind of gym—except instead of lifting weights, you work out your brain. He found himself at home in the freestyle DIY culture. “Really, the way I got involved in this was keeping an open mind about . . . weird stuff. And just being flexible and open to strange opportunities,” he says.
It was at Makerspace that Oehrlein met MegaBots Inc. cofounder Gui Cavalcanti, who was running a Makerspace in Boston. “Gui is a great mechanical designer. I’m an electrical controls guy, and so our skills are actually very complementary. So with our skills combined. . . .” Naturally. A giant robot. Thus, MegaBots was born. The company’s slogan is, “Making the world more epic, one giant robot at a time.”
In February 2015, Megabots relocated to the Bay Area, partnering with a marketing firm in the hopes of realizing Oehrlein’s ultimate vision: an international giant robot fighting sports league. But who to fight? It turns out the world has at least one other giant robot, owned by Suidobashi Heavy Industry of Japan. So Oehrlein and Cavalcanti posted a YouTube video challenging Suidobashi to a duel. It received millions of views.
“We decked ourselves out in American flags and aviators, and we just made it a big hilarious overly American patriotic ‘C’mon America let’s do this, let’s rally around your robot’ video. And people responded.”
One week later, Kogoro Kurata of Suidobashi accepted—on the condition that the MegaBots robot would need to be “cooler,” and engage in hand-to-hand combat. That meant MegaBots would need to redesign their prototype Mark II from a robot built primarily with projectile weaponry in mind to one that could move more nimbly in hand-to-hand (so to speak) combat—one that could take and throw a punch from another 15-foot machine. On the wish list are crushing and grasping claws, shields, pneumatically-driven fists, and a cannon. The problem: All of that takes money—big money.
So Oehrlein and Cavalcanti set up a Kickstarter campaign in August. Nearly 8,000 donations and more than $550,000 later, they have enough to battle Japan next July. (Date and location to be determined—see MegaBots.com for updates). In the meantime, Oehrlein is immersed in his dream.
“We’re this weird half-entertainment, half-tech company. I don’t know of any other company quite like this, with a crazy entertaining front end and then behind the scenes it’s actually a high-end robotics research lab. It’s definitely a dream job.”