Competitor has a nuclear nuance


Move over, heavyweight boxing champion Hasim Rahman: The Atomic Wedgie is here.

The robot -- built in a Catonsville garage -- is in San Francisco for the five-day Memorial Day weekend BattleBots competition.

"BattleBots" is the popular Comedy Central television show in which radio-controlled robots compete in a ring where they try to bash each other to pieces.

At 325 pounds, the Atomic Wedgie is a battery-powered machine that rolls on tank-like treads and will enter the arena as runner-up from the super-heavyweight division of last year's tournament.

"We went further than we ever thought," said Charlie Payne of Catonsville, who operates the machine. "You could go in there and lose everything."

Payne and his co-workers began building the Atomic Wedgie in the fall after seeing "BattleBots," which airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

The men spent about eight weeks of their spare time building the remote-controlled robot for the last competition, which was held in November in Las Vegas and involved 160 robots. During the second round, the Atomic Wedgie upended the show's previous champion in the three-minute bout.

A robot wins if it disables its opponent in the arena, which is surrounded by 24- foot-high transparent safety panels to protect spectators from flying parts. In addition, hazards such as hidden whirring saws pop up in the ring to thwart the metallic gladiators. If both robots survive what some liken to a mechanical cockfight, judges decide the winner.

"We took him out in a minute and a half," Payne said. "We were ecstatic."

The Atomic Wedgie fell short of becoming champion when the robot's drive shaft failed during the final fight. Repairs were made, and the men then prepared for the competition in San Francisco, which began Thursday and runs through Monday. Six hundred fifty robots are expected to compete.

That number is almost 10 times the 70 that Comedy Central had in its first season. Even the U.S. Air Force, through the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, has entered two robots.

"A lot of entrants are going to be pros instead of amateurs," Payne said. "I think it's going to be a lot tougher."

Payne and his partners -- Kevin Maze, Robert Everhart, Tom Corrie, Rich Martin, Joe Esposito and Bill Hayes -- work as engineers at Duratek Inc., a Columbia-based company that disposes of radioactive waste. They have dubbed their team "Team Half-Life."

At Duratek, the men are involved in blending radioactive waste with glass to make it more easily disposable. As members of a robot-building team, each man plays a different role.

Payne has been building life-sized robots since his high school days. When Everhart saw the "BattleBots" show, he approached Payne with the idea of building their warrior.

The men have been working furiously to get the Atomic Wedgie in fighting shape, each taking turns cutting, grinding or welding its metal components.

"It's a lot of fun," Payne said. "But it's also a lot of work."

Payne estimates that the robot has cost about $11,000, much of which has been recouped through corporate sponsors, including Duratek, whose name rolls across the Atomic Wedgie.

The men won $3,000 last year for placing second in the competition. The first-place winner gets $6,000.

The crew has added jagged metal teeth to the back of the machine to protect its electronic components. Payne credits the wedge design for the success last year, when the Atomic Wedgie upended robots to win four matches over three days.

The men also have built in two spinning rotors that weigh 15 pounds each and whir at a rate of 3,000 revolutions per minute.

"We're more structure than anything," Payne said. "If we get turned upside down, we're the same machine."

Payne says he is working on a robot that he hopes will be his greatest accomplishment: "One that will bring you a beer from the fridge."

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