Herstory Rewritten – A Female Roboteer’s Perspective

Since Robot Wars aired, I’ve seen a few, let’s say impolite comments about the roles that women have on the teams and feel that unless you know us as people or have walked a mile in our shoes, the comments are just that and basically unfounded, those people are making observations on a limited amount of data. The program shows only a small amount of what all of us do, despite doing hours of filming and asking numerous questions. Incidentally, there are several men on teams who don’t do anything beyond providing the money to fund the robot, but they are still a valid part of the team, they get described as ‘silent’ team members by some. Some of those men haven’t got a clue how to build a robot, doesn’t stop them taking part and nobody is telling them that they should stay at home because they didn’t build a robot!

Now this isn’t written to point fingers, or say we’re better than men, or we’re equal, or we’re not being taken seriously. As a female roboteer I’d be the first to admit there are some things that I simply can’t do, I can’t lift a 110kg robot up on my own for example. I can’t weld yet, but thanks to Dr Lucy Rogers tweeting yesterday, Simon is going to give me some lessons, I can solder, why not weld? Not that it will help in the pits, even the male roboteers aren’t allowed to weld their own robots in the pits of Robot Wars, 'Elf and Safety' rules mean you can only use their in house welder.

Women bring a set of skills to the arena that some of the male roboteers don’t have, and before I continue, there is something I want to make VERY, VERY clear, 99.9% of male roboteers don’t see you as a female roboteer, if you’re on a team, then you’re a roboteer, gender isn’t an issue, it’s the fans of the show that are making it an issue. In my experience, the male roboteers are very open to females on the team, encouraging, us to take an active part, not all of us can, but we do what we can. To be honest in the roboteer community, I think its true to say that I'm a roboteer first and a woman second, we don't have male roboteers and female roboteers, we're all roboteers.

Ask a roboteer who has had little sleep, not eaten much and is frantically trying to do 6 months of work on a robot in 10 weeks to prepare for the show time slot, whether having a part of the team make them stop to eat, sleep or gently encourage them to shower and take a break isn’t a part of being on the team? Most roboteers have day jobs, they use up holidays to get ready for and take part in events, they have families, whilst the men on the team are doing the welding, the women get on with making sure everything else runs smoothly, some women do the welding, build the robot and do everything else.

That said, when all the welding, hacking and tweaking isn’t finished until 11pm the night before we were travelling to Glasgow to film the show the next day, and I found myself sticking the holographic film on to the side panels and making sure we had spare panels, cut and covered in the event the aluminium panels got damaged.

Which I may add, Simon said we wouldn’t need and we blinking well did, even if they were gaffer taped on because the bolts had been sheered off and we couldn't screw them in place, then the half of the team twiddling HIS thumbs makes the coffee to keep you awake to finish the job, we don't do tea in this house.

I get the job also of reparing damage to panels, filling in dents and battle damage, sanding, filing and making panels smooth before the holographic plastic is added.

Whilst I support and encourage women and girls to take part in the world of combat robotics 110%, I am not demanding we include all girl teams, nor do I want my own all female team. What I want is for women and girls to be able to be on a team and contribute whatever it is they can without being maligned for not being builders, or seen as filling gender quotas or told they aren’t a valid member of a team because they don’t contribute anything but support or tea. I can’t speak for the rest of the women that were on the current show, they have their own stories to tell, but for myself, I can certainly speak.

How Do You Get to be a Roboteer?

I've been asked on numerous occasions "how do you get to be a roboteer"? "How did you get interested in robots?" and "What is it that you do?" It's all a learning experience and at 52 some would argue that I’m too old and don't have anything to bring to the team. This annoys me a lot, I come from a generation were girls were encouraged to be girls, that meant despite being interested in metalwork and woodwork at secondary school, thanks to my Grandad's influence, I wasn’t allowed to take those options, when I challenged it I was told we’d “be a distraction to the boys”.

I continued to challenge the issue, I became a pupil governor at my school and asked uncomfortable questions and 1 year after I left school, girls were allowed to take metalwork, technical drawing and woodwork. Too late for me, but younger friends ended up having careers using those options. When I was at school, IT and computer science weren’t even on the curriculum and computer sales, magazines and games were aimed solely at boys, google 1980's ads for Atari and Commodore computors to see what I mean.

When I left school at 16, I was forced to get a factory job, I wasn’t allowed to go to college, something that younger generations may find hard to grasp, but back in the early 1980’s girls didn’t have many options. You did what your parents told you to do. Personally I certainly didn’t have anywhere to live or a means of supporting myself if I left home and ignored what my parents said, it was a different world.

A world where girls were allowed to do typing, domestic science and human biology, things that would prepare them for becoming a wife, mother or help them get a good job as a secretary! We weren’t allowed to do anything that was remotely seen as male, it was even worse for Simon’s mum in the 1960's, she had a career as a nurse ahead of her, but despite training to be a nurse and being bloody good at it, her fate was sealed when she got married and was forced to give up her job, but that’s a whole other story.

I first became interested in robots in the late 1960’s as a young child watching Gigantor - a black and white cartoon – the show captured my imagination and not long after I got my first tin wind up robot from my Grandad.

That robot was promptly taken off me and substituted for a doll by my Mum, who thought that to be a more appropriate toy for a girl.

In my early 20’s I discovered Isaac Asimov’s books and a whole new world opened up to me.

A fascination for computers followed not long after, my then boyfriend got a Vic 20 and I taught myself to code in BASIC, with a little help from him. Several years later we both wound up at college, he doing a full BTEC Computing Science course, me doing a City & Guilds in COBOL programming, I was rather good at it, and excelled. Until that is, the female tutor accused me of cheating and getting my boyfriend to do my homework, in truth I was helping him with his homework. This and other anti-female attitudes put me off taking my computer programming skills to higher levels. In hindsight I feel let down, but it happened, move on and try again.

There was a bit of a gap in doing anything with a computer, then I got given my first PC running Windows 3.1 which with the help of a 57k modem was capable of connecting to the internet, and I discovered the World Wide Web. I became interested in htm (we didn’t have the L back then) and web design. I taught myself how to code web pages, moved on to javascript and built some personal web pages, I also helped friends with their websites. Which is how I got talking to Simon in the first place. He wanted to turn a series of drawings of a frog he did into a gif and build a web page, he didn’t know how, so I taught him how to do it over the internet. We’d met in a science fiction chat room, where conversations would often turn to robots, he was quiet and shy and I was out going and connected with people far more easily, we’re still that way and wouldn’t change each other for the world.

Simon tried to get on Series 5 of Robot Wars, he ran out of time and the robot wasn’t finished, if I’d been around to help organise and do the things that I do today, things could very well have been different. I wasn’t, Chompalot wasn’t picked for series 5 and Si was gutted. I remember talking to him online the night of the trial rejection and I really felt for him, the conversation changed and I think that’s when what we have now blossomed. He was so disappointed and I wanted to help him make his dreams a reality, I offered to help in any way I could and have continued to do so ever since, we probably don’t stand a robot in hells chance of doing what Apollo just did, but we’ll keep trying.

At this point our relationship took a huge directional change, that love thing happened, so I left Manchester, moved in with Simon and not long after he entered Technogames with Buoyant our swimming robot. I had a hand in shaping his body shell, recycling grey metallic effect plastic bottles to fabricate a series of shapes to help Buoyant look like an ant, I also had a lot to say about the shape of the paddles see the Evolution of Buoyant page. When we went along to the trails for Technogames, I was going along as Simon’s girlfriend, so I was shocked when he added me to the team, shocked but thrilled, finally I was able to be a part of a world that had buzzed in my head since I was 5 years old, it should also be mentioned that I was a fan of Robot Wars and watched the show, before Si and I met.

Granted my ideas weren’t about combat robots, they were about robots that would make the future better, but it was robotic none the less. To me robots are more about A.I., machines that could one day be mistaken for humans, thinking for themselves, doing things without being told, performing useful functions, making the world better. Whereas combat robots are far from that, they are glorified remote controlled toys, fun toys for sure, but they don’t think for themselves and only move when the roboteers operate them, or another robot gives them an almighty shove. Unless they’ve been wired up incorrectly, in which case they’re a law unto themselves!

When series 6 came around, we didn’t do very well as Robot Wars history shows, but as a team we tried. Every time we enter the arena, we learn something, it’s my job to review the battle, list what went wrong and then we talk about how we can correct it for next time, its also part of my job to chase up the suggestions and make sure they happen, Si easily gets distracted and isn't as time concious as I am. The comments I’ve seen where I “just do the sticky back plastic” one step away from just makes the tea are not true and unfair, it’s what the show highlighted. But they didn’t show all the things we filmed or all the comments made.

I’ve been the weapons operator since James left the team after Extreme II, and speaking of Extreme II, I drove Chompalot, and so far that’s the only time in our Robot Wars – not live event – history that we’ve not only got to a Robot Wars final, but we won, I have a trophy to prove it and I’m damn proud of it. If I don't do my bit then we don't bite, I also help with tactics.

What a lot of people don’t know is that Simon applied for the New Blood show for Extreme II but was turned down, the BBC phoned him later and said Chompalot could be in the Warrior’s Wives (the original name for Iron Maiden’s) if I drove. I REALLY, did NOT want to be on the show and said NO, Simon sulked until I agreed to do it.

The pressure was enormous, I spent several weeks driving a practice robot around the front room in an effort to do it right. Never once until I got the robot in to the arena for that first Iron Maiden’s fight had I driven a heavy weight robot and never again since. I happen to think I’m the better driver, Simon disagrees and won’t relinquish the driver’s seat for me to prove it. Given the chance I’d drive Chompalot in the arena in a heartbeat and I can, it’s not as easy as it looks, when you’ve tried it for yourself, you’re allowed to comment, till then :p

As the years have gone on I’ve become more involved with Chompie’s development and evolution, subtle changes to his exterior are because of me, I happen to think he looks a heck of a lot better under my influence than he did for series 5. The way he looks today is down to me, horns, back spike, flames, and colours. Simon builds and welds, but these days even that is changing, I’ve helped with solutions to problems in development, help find faults when things just aren’t working and kept the team focused and on track.

It’s me that maintains and updates our website, I do the social media, because Simon dislikes using Twitter and only just uses Facebook. For the latest evolution of Chompie, I’ve had a hand in coding the sequences for the LED’s that we have for the eyes.

Somewhere between the 4 way battle and the fight with Gabriel the eyes stopped working, when we connected them prior to entering the arena for the second time there was a small puff of smoke around the Arduino. Never mind we’ll just have to go in without and we’ll look at it later said I.

Last night I finally diagnosed the problem, the voltage regulator on the Arduino Nano had fried and the D2 pin wasn’t working as a result, so last night I soldered a new Arduino Nano board to a set of pins and swapped out the fried board, tested it and it worked. Did I omit to say I have a little basic electronics knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way? Oh well I have, and I can do some of the things that need doing like looking for dry joints, testing signals with the multi meter and various other jobs besides, I didn’t mention that on the telly, nor did I mention I’m a gamer, that I spend a lot of time attached to a computer or a console and love it, didn't mention that I’m playing with Raspberry Pi, Arduino and now edging towards the BBC Microbit, and a lot of other things I do outside the tea box, am I a roboteer yet?

Using my coding skills, I added a new sequence to make a red LED light up on the eyes, the idea is to replace all the blue LED’s for multi-colour LED’s in chompies eyes, so that when I’m angry I can flick a switch on the weapons control and the eyes will turn red. May not make it to the next evolution as we have more serious issues to contend with, but it will happen one day soon. Other ideas of mine that we’re working on for a future evolution of Chompalot are a rear weapon, wings opening only when we have to self-right to eliminate the vulnerability we suffer from as a result of the Srimech (Self Righting Mechanism) being connected to the jaws opening and closing. I’ve been flagging this vulnerability for years, only now is it beginning to be addressed.

On the show they showed Simon and other guys from other teams rebuilding Chompalot after the 4 way battle, I wasn’t around, why was that? Not because I couldn’t or wouldn’t help, but because I had a different skill set, I could see people struggling without certain tools, so I ran off to locate the things that were needed that we didn't have from hack saws to spare chain links to help put Chompie back together. I spent 30 minutes of the precious 2 hours to repair that we had, trying to find the in-house welder, who was on his lunch at the time.

I dealt with the camera crew and questions whilst Simon got on with the vital job of getting Chompie back in to the arena. We worked as a team, with the help of others and got to fight one more time, when I stood waiting for the cameras to roll for the second fight I was exhausted, neither Simon or I had eaten, we’d drunk very little, there wasn’t time, I did everything I could - except make the tea - to get our robot back in the arena, if that doesn’t make me a roboteer, then I don’t know what does!