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  • Paul Grata

From Behind the Tunnel

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

The arena looms dark and menacing in the quiet hours before the matches. Empty bleachers framing the sides and black drop cloths hanging overhead add to the feeling of dread. As you stand a couple car lengths away, right at the mouth of the tunnel, and admire the view your mind can’t help but wander a bit. In a few short hours the object you’ve spent endless months working on will go head to head against a robot universally feared for its destructive capabilities. You swallow hard.

The arena is empty. There’s no need for the crew right now so you get to admire the view by yourself. Your eyes drift down from the upper rafters, past the light riggings and briefly settle on the eight-foot door that marks the entrance to this beast. To the left is the first hammer station and a few feet beyond that the driver stations. All told, the arena must be more than fifty feet wide from where you stand. It’s much larger than you thought it would be. The ramp looks like it would be perfect to display a Jeep trying to climb a mountain. The secret fear of watching your robot tumble off the cart as you push it up that ramp snaps into clear focus in your mind. There’s pride in being destroyed within the arena. Dropping your robot off your cart while trying to get up the ramp itself? Not so much.

So you take a moment to gauge the distance here, between the tunnel and the ramp; maybe a couple car lengths and enough for a decent running start. You’ll have time to do a quick wave to the crowd. There’s the tunnel length as well, though nobody but the camera will see you in there. Really though, you just want to take this moment to admire the view.

You’ve spent these past few months working every spare moment on your bot. You’ve invested time, money, sweat and maybe even a bit of blood into bringing this dream to life. In a few hours you’ll be lined up here, at the back of this tunnel with all the lights, noise and crowd cheering for you. Yet it’s still hard to believe, standing in this spot and looking at this dark arena surrounded by these empty bleachers.

This is the tunnel you’ll walk through. And the dreaded ramp. You’ll walk your robot into the arena and over into the red square, lifting the bot off the cart the way you’ve done a dozen times for testing. You already know how you’ll stand as Faruq introduces your robot for the first time. It’s all so perfect in your mind that the fight itself is an afterthought.

You slowly make your way up to the arena but you don’t go in: it just doesn’t feel right with the lights off, almost like a giant coffin. Instead you wander to the drivers station and look into the future. Into the box as it stands just before a fight, when all the lights are off except for the starting square colors and the starting tree. You’ve seen it a thousand times on TV, reenacted it thousands more in your mind. All your focus is on those yellow lights turning green and the three minutes that follow.

There’s an electric feel to the air. You imagine this must be what it’s like to be a rock star right before going out on stage. Music beats through the air and you can’t tell if the thumping you feel in your chest is your heart or the bass. Lights blare to life and scan the faces in the crowd just visible beyond the tunnel: packed bleachers, homemade signs waving, and even an inflatable gator briefly flying through the air. The crowd is a living beast, satiated only by the robotic carnage they are witnessing.

You wait near the rear of the tunnel, unable to see the fight about to begin. As Faruq makes his introductions the crowd comes alive. Cheers for the Red Square followed by competing cheers for the Blue Square. A hushed anticipation as the light tree blinks yellow, yellow, green and another sudden explosion of excited cheers. You can feel the flow of the match without eyes, listening to the audience grow more intense as the two robots within angle for position. A loud bang followed by the briefest moment of hush and a rancorous explosion from the crowd indicates something devastating must have happened. And as the referee counts down the crowd joins in chants of “three”, “two”, “one” before offering a final round of applause to the victor.

Your focus wavers as the drivers are being interviewed. Your thoughts circle back around to the tunnel, the illuminated fog creeping slowly out of it, the pulsing of the crowd and look of concentration both your teammates and opponents share. Nobody is speaking as everyone is lost in their own thoughts. The months of work on the verge of paying off. All the design arguments and build challenges, the compromises and knowledge gained. The friend’s birthday you missed, and the vacation time used.

The walk through the tunnel. The roar of the crowd. The lights and the cameras, the introduction by Faruq. Waving to the crowd and shaking the other driver’s hand. Finally, after all this time and everything you’ve gone through to be here, hitting that “Ready” button. A lifetime of dreams about to come true.

It’s your turn to shine. Your turn to walk through that tunnel to show the world what you’re made of. No matter what happens once the box is locked, and the lights are on; now it’s robot fighting time!

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