This is a story about Al Kindle. But it’s also a story about Kindle’s creation, Blacksmith.
Blacksmith weighs 250 pounds, a touch over what Mike Tyson did in his prime. It is shaped like a tank turret on wheels, and is armored like one too, protected by plates of hardened AR500 steel, the same stuff that shooting range targets are made of. Blacksmith’s most distinctive feature, and the one that gives it its name, is a huge sledgehammer that swings hard enough to buck Blacksmith off the ground as it strikes, and also belches 1,800-degree flames from the hammerhead.
Blacksmith was built for war: it’s a Battlebot.
“Battlebots” is a robotic combat tournament televised on the Discovery Channel. Its participants travel from all over the world to Lakewood, California, every year to fight in a grueling two-week competition for the coveted Giant Nut trophy. Kindle, who lives in Edison, leads one of two teams from New Jersey that are participating in the season of “Battlebots” currently on the air. The other is Paul Ventimiglia and his robot, Bite Force, the defending champion.
“It’s a radio-controlled robotics competition that happens to be combat-oriented,” Kindle says. “A lot of people have heard of the FIRST robotics competition for high school students. The obvious difference is that we are trying to kill each other.”
“Battlebots” is a combination of FIRST, ultimate fighting, and e-sports. The “bots” cannot truly be called “robots” since they are remote controlled. As in mixed martial arts, there are rules: no nets, no explosives, no electricity, no liquids; and there is a weight limit of 250 pounds. Beyond that pretty much anything goes. Bouts are three minutes long and take place in an arena called the Battlebox, where competitors must contend not only with each other, but with hazards such as spikes, rotating screws, pulverizer hammers, and “killsaws” that rise up from slots in the arena’s heavily battered steel floor. The winner is the last one standing, and if both make it three minutes, a panel of judges declares a victor.
Kindle has been competing in robotic combat for 24 years, longer than some of his Battlebots opponents have been alive.
Kindle grew up in the house in Edison where he now lives with his wife. His father, a sheet metal worker, taught him mechanical skills — the tractor they worked on together is still in the garage where Blacksmith was built.
In 1994 Kindle had just graduated from high school when he saw a show on the Discovery channel called Next Step, which had a segment on an event in San Francisco called Robot Wars. It was an early version of Battlebots. “It was the greatest, most absurd thing I had ever seen,” he says. The next year he and a friend built a robot, got in an old mail van, and drove across the country to compete. Building a radio-controlled bot was second nature to Kindle, as he was already into radio controlled cars and helicopters. “The bot was terrible, but so were most of the other ones,” Kindle says.
Over the next few years “Robot Wars” was picked up by the BBC and filmed in Britain. The competition returned to the U.S. in 2000 as “Battlebots” and was aired on Comedy Central. Kindle brought another bot to Las Vegas in 2000, but he rates that metal gladiator as “terrible,” and it was never shown on TV.
“Battlebots” was cancelled in 2003, but robot combat continued as a hobby. Kindle joined a group called the Northeast Robotics Club, which holds robot battles at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and at the Motorama Motorsports Expo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, every year with 30-pound bots.
The show was revived again by ABC in 2015. “I was originally mad because I had no idea they were even doing it,” Kindle says. “No one contacted me. I was like, what the hell!”
He didn’t want to miss out on the next season though. By then Kindle and his friends were established in their careers and could afford the massive costs involved in building the heavyweight that were featured on Battlebots. Kindle, who graduated from DeVry with a degree in electronics, works as an electromechanical technician at SPEX SamplePrep in Metuchen, where he builds scientific sample preparation machines. (Oddly enough, a machine the company built was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, where it was used to prepare a shark tooth for a DNA sample to see if the same shark was responsible for two attacks on swimmers.)
Kindle put together a team of friends: Alan Young, John Wolan, James Iocca, and Kyle Singer. Wolan has been Kindle’s friend since childhood, while Iocca and Singer were also in the Northeast Robotics Club, where Young was Kindle’s main rival. “He was my nemesis,” Kindle says. “I got Alan because I didn’t want anyone else to have him.”
The team brainstormed ideas for a bot. “They had an application process, and they stressed having themes for TV,” Kindle says. The producers wanted bots that would stand out from the rest.
By this time, the art of robot combat was rapidly being perfected. Competitive bot builders had rediscovered an ancient principle of mechanics, which is that a spinning wheel is a great way to store kinetic energy — and deliver it all at once to the face of a hapless target. Most of the top robots had spinning bars or drums of steel as a main weapon, with the most fearsome being able to send a 250-pound robot flying 15 feet in the air, or bash and chop opponents to pieces in seconds.
Kindle knew that most of the entrants would be spinners. So to stand out he picked a less popular weapon: a hammer. “We wanted to be on the shortest pile of applications,” he says.
Fire was the icing on the cake. “We thought they like fire, so let’s put fire on it. All of my teammates said we should put fire in the hammerhead. I was like, are you nuts? How the hell are we going to do that? I was just thinking we would shoot fire out the front and it would look cool. My teammate, Alan, he’s a brilliant guy, said, ‘I’ll make it work, don’t worry.’”
Weeks later, the show’s creator Greg Munson, gave Kindle a call and asked him just one question: Was he sure he could make a robot that shot fire out of a hammerhead? “Yes,” Kindle lied.
The team spent the next few months building Blacksmith in Kindle’s garage and driveway as well as at the home of his mother-in-law, which is across the street. Since all the team members worked full-time jobs, weekends were a frenzy of welding, grinding, hammering, and building.
Igniting flammable gas consistently is much more difficult than it appears, which is one reason that flamethrowers on Battelbots tend to be unreliable. But Young did eventually get Blacksmith’s signature weapon working as advertised, and Blacksmith was ready for the 2016 “Battlebots” season.
Kindle knew that the hammer wasn’t going to be the most devastating weapon in the field of competitors, but he built Blacksmith tough enough to resist blows from the deadliest spinners in the tournament. One of the secrets to Blacksmith’s durability is that its vital batteries and motors are far inside its tank-like frame, with lots of space between the outside armor and the electrical components. “People ask me what the best armor is,” Kindle says. “It’s air.”
Over the seasons, Kindle’s bot has developed a reputation for extreme toughness. It may not be the deadliest bot in the competition, but it is one of the best built and can take hits that would knock out lesser machines.
Battlebots is filmed over a two-week period. One thing viewers don’t see is the immense amount of strain this puts on the teams. Kindle says he and his wife, Cara, have not taken a real vacation since 2015. Battlebots competitors make real sacrifices in their personal lives for the glory of competition.
In addition to being time consuming, it is tremendously expensive to build a 250-pound battlebot. “Blacksmith in the box ready to fight this season was $20,000 to $25,000,” Kindle says. It’s insane.” This cost includes two entire frames, wheel drive motors and spares at $500 apiece, $5,000 worth of steel … the list goes on. Blacksmith has shelves of parts, including custom-machined pieces of armor designed to fight specific opponents. With a 250-pound weight limit, parts can be strategically added and removed to counter enemy weapons. For example, Blacksmith uses a huge steel plow when fighting low-hitting horizontal spinners, saving weight elsewhere by removing heavy top armor.
While Blacksmith may cost as much as a new car, the expense is offset by sponsors who want to see their names associated with Battlebots’ spectacle of engineering know-how and mechanical mayhem. NPC Robotics, Kloeckner Metals of York, Pennsylvania, and Jet Precision Metal of Hawthorne all sponsor Blacksmith and provide parts.
The biggest sponsor, however, is Nuclear Blast Records, a name that is familiar to those who are fans of heavy metal music like Kindle is. What better way to advertise bands like Slayer and Hammerfall than with the most metal of battlebots?
Kindle was the one who pursued a Nuclear Blast sponsorship, having recognized them as a good fit. A long-time metalhead, Kindle got an e-mail address from a friend who runs a metal music mail order business and asked for a sponsorship. As a result Blacksmith gained its most enthusiastic sponsor, and Kindle says he has even gained crossover fans for Blacksmith from metalheads who heard about it from the record label.
He even made a cutout of the Nuclear Blast logo on the hammerhead: a radiation hazard symbol that’s backlit by the flames. Extremely metal. Kindle says he would like to have a metal band play Blacksmiths’ walk-up music: Ideally, Overkill, an Old Bridge-based band.
Blacksmith also generates income from merchandise and toy sales. Kindle sells Blacksmith T-shirts, and Hexbug has made remote-controlled Blacksmith toys. Kindle says he will just about break even financially this season.
From its debut, Blacksmith’s flaming hammer proved to be incredibly photogenic, and photos of its fights were often used to promote “Battlebots.”
In its first fight, Blacksmith fought and knocked out two opponents in a multi-bot “rumble.” Next, it fought Bronco, which used a pneumatic flipper to toss Blacksmith around the arena, eventually knocking it out by hanging it on one of the battlebox walls.
Its last fight of 2016 was an epic battle. Blacksmith faced off against Minotaur, a compact Brazilian bot with a terrifying drum spinner that sounds like an airplane engine when spun up to full speed.
The bout began with Kindle using a plow attachment to keep Minotaur at bay, pushing it around the arena and trying to shove it over the wall or beneath the pulverizer hammers. But a little under a minute in, Minotaur’s spinner got a grip and launched Blacksmith 10 feet into the air. But Blacksmith kept coming after that hit, and two more in rapid succession that sent the boxy bot reeling in a shower of sparks. Blacksmith retaliated with hammer blows that did nothing to faze its opponent.
Over the next minute, Minotaur’s mighty drum spinner dismantled Blacksmith piece by piece, breaking the plow off, then the hammer, sending the hammerhead flying. Despite massive damage, Blacksmith kept attacking, flailing at Minotaur with its hammer shaft until finally relentless attacks from Minotaur set Blacksmith’s batteries on fire, disabling the bot, gutting it, and ending its season.
“We went out in a blaze of glory,” Kindle says.
The fight was so spectacular that it quickly became the most viewed video of all time on ABC’s YouTube channel. It now has 13 million views, and between that and its viewership on Facebook of more than 20 million, Kindle says it’s probably the most viewed Battlebots video ever. “Unfortunately we get our ass kicked in that fight,” he says. “The rematch was much better but nobody cares because we didn’t get hurt.”
Despite his viral fame, Kindle says he has only been recognized once, in a pizzeria. Cara was recognized before Al was, at a bank.
“Battlebots” was cancelled by ABC but came back on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel in 2018, and Blacksmith has been in both seasons since then. In 2018 it only won one of its five matches, but bounced back the next year, and had fought its way to a 3-2 record. As of this writing, Blacksmith had made it to the “round of 16,” the post-season playoffs of the Battlebots sport.
Blacksmith currently sits war-beaten and battle scarred in Kindle’s garage. One of its armored attachments is gouged from a battle with Rotator, a horizontal spinner, and its top armor has two patches where the steel fang of a biting robot, Quantum, sunk into it and could only be removed with the aid of a hydraulic press.
Kindle, who has a sense of humor with a self-deprecating edge, has become almost as famous as his bot on Internet communities dedicated to Battlebots thanks to his non-poker-faced reactions to various misfortunes. “You can’t take yourself too seriously,” Kindle says.
Kindle does take the competition seriously in that he wants to win. And he acknowledges that may be difficult with his hammer, which isn’t powerful enough for his satisfaction. “The hammer’s just not going to hit hard enough no matter what we do,” he says. “Unless you do high-level pneumatics or hydraulics or something, it’s just not.”
As for the flames, they are mostly just for show. Kindle says opponents protect their bots’ innards with flame-resistant material when fighting him, so the fire can’t really do any damage.
But the flaming hammer is Blacksmith’s identity, and it just wouldn’t be the same without it.
“We’re kind of locked into it. This is our bot, as much as we all would rather just put on a vertical disc spinner and beat everybody. … everybody likes this one, and so we’re going to try to win with this one,” Kindle says.
Kindle says that anyone watching Battelbots like he was back in 1994, and who was inspired to get into the competition, would do well to check out the Northeast Robotics Club. “Most builders are happy to help new builders get started,” Kindle wrote in an e-mail. The Northeast Robotics Club is online at nerc.us and a Facebook Group called Northeast Robotics Club. Another good resource for beginners is the “Robot Combat” Facebook group.
Kindle will be at the Franklin Institute event on Saturday, October 5, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., where 3 and 30-pound robots will slug it out. For more information, visit buildersdb.com.
One thing that viewers of the show don’t see much of is the camaraderie between bot builders between matches. “The producers always commented on that,” Kindle says. “They would say, ‘you guys are the nicest group of people, and it’s horrible for TV.’ They would rather us hate each other, but it would all be fake.”
Kindle says that from local events all the way up to Battlebots, the builders are quick to help each other out with a helping hand or spare parts to get one another working. “I don’t ever want to win because your bot wasn’t ready, or your bot wasn’t the best it could be because you needed a part and maybe I had it, maybe I could have helped you. People find that strange, but we’ll help each other right up until we’re in the box,” Kindle says. “Then we try to kill each other. That’s just the way we are.”