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The Trouble With Giant Robots

So, in honor of Pacific Rim (which is getting really good reviews and I may just see now), let me present this old post of mine presenting the realistic problems with having Giant Robots for real, no matter how cool they are. Anyway, enjoy or not:

Auston Habershaw

Most of the guys I know who grew up in the 80s love Voltron. To be honest, I don’t really get it. For me, the deal breaker has always been that he is made out of five robot lions and that, at the end of pretty much every episode, he destroys the robeast with the blazing sword, which always begs the question ‘why didn’t he just immediately become Voltron and draw the blazing sword? What isn’t that his go-to strategy?’ I really hate it when characters are stupid exclusively to create conflict. I don’t mind if a character is naturally stupid all the time, I just hate when anybody’s asked to hold the ‘idiot ball’ just so the opposition can make things interesting. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of what this blog is about. Maybe I should change the title…

But I digress…

There’s a bigger problem with Voltron, of course…

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The Trouble With Giant Robots

Most of the guys I know who grew up in the 80s love Voltron. To be honest, I don’t really get it. For me, the deal breaker has always been that he is made out of five robot lions and that, at the end of pretty much every episode, he destroys the robeast with the blazing sword, which always begs the question ‘why didn’t he just immediately become Voltron and draw the blazing sword? What isn’t that his go-to strategy?’ I really hate it when characters are stupid exclusively to create conflict. I don’t mind if a character is naturally stupid all the time, I just hate when anybody’s asked to hold the ‘idiot ball’ just so the opposition can make things interesting. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of what this blog is about. Maybe I should change the title…

But I digress…

There’s a bigger problem with Voltron, of course. Indeed, there is a problem with all giant robot/mech stories, and it’s simply this: Why would anybody bother building a fifty or one-hundred foot, bipedal robot?

Granted, they’re pretty cool. That’s about all, though – they afford no significant advantage over other, already existing forms of transportation. That is, furthermore, what they are – a form of transportation for weapons, a delivery system for various lasers, missiles and, I suppose, blazing swords (as asinine as that idea is). Usually, the stories that rely heavily upon mechs (Battletech, Robotech, Voltron, Macross, and even Warhammer 40K to some extent) invent various rationales as to why the mechs are the pinnacle of military technology and all of us, collectively, have seemed to buy into it. I’m here to tell you that it’s ridiculous, and I’m going to debunk these ideas one-by-one.

Mech Myth #1: Legs Make You All-Terrain

No, they don’t. Walking upright, or even walking at all, isn’t all that superior to any other kind of locomotion in most circumstances. The supposition among mech-enthusiasts is that, somehow, by having feet you are better able to move about on rough terrain. This may be true, but only occasionally and, furthermore, the lengths one would need to go to to make a robot walk around on two legs far outweighs the benefits contained therein.

What is important to remember is just how difficult it is to walk around while upright. It’s hard, folks – there is a reason that we are one of only a handful of species who can manage it. Our inner ear (which provides us with the balance necessary to pull this off) is an enormously complex organ, and we humans only top out at a few hundred pounds and stand no more than seven feet tall in most cases. We also fall down a lot – usually in rough terrain, incidentally – and have the capacity to adapt our center of gravity by crouching or crawling if need be.

A giant robot is going to stand, what, two stories tall, at minimum? How much does a thing like that weigh? Well, if Battletech is to be believed, it’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 100 metric tons, maybe even more. That is a huge amount of mass to be balanced on two feet or even four (though at least then it would be far easier) and would require a gyroscope of incredible sophistication (and probably size) to get the thing to stand and walk around on even terrain, let alone the rough stuff. Furthermore, the odds of being able to give it the flexibility and agility to do things like crouch or catch its balance if it stumbles and so on are pretty small, and even if you can do that, it’s going to be enormously expensive.

And what does the mech gain from this bipedal nature? Well, I suppose they get better at climbing, negotiating forests, and wading through rivers. Of course, given the massive size of these vehicles, one must ask (1) what it is they need to climb, (2) what forests are going to have trees far enough apart for them to pass anyway, and (3) why didn’t you spend all that money just making a hovercraft or a helicopter or, hell, an amphibious tank?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you have now built an extremely expensive and sophisticated vehicle that can fall over. Do you think a forty-ton, three story robot falls over and just gets back up again? If you think so then you, my friend, don’t know much about inertia. The sheer amount of energy required to get the robot to sit back up would be enormous. You’d need a giant robot with titanic abs, essentially; you would take up enormous quantities of power and space aboard the mech on abs that would really only be used if it fell down. To compensate, you probably end up putting huge amounts of weight in the thing’s feet, and need correspondingly huge engines just to move around, making it ponderous, slow, and erasing whatever advantages were gained by having legs in the first place. What a waste of resources! Just put the damn thing on tracks and have done with it!

Mech Myth #2: Being a Mech Provides a Superior Platform for Weapons

Honestly, there is something to be said for this one. Being high-up gives one a good view of the battlefield and, theoretically, would provide a pretty good platform for long-range weaponry. There are, unfortunately, a couple major problems with this. Firstly, if you can see the whole battlefield, this also means the whole battlefield can see you. The giant robot becomes a giant target and, since all you need to do is knock it down, it’s easier to destroy than you think. Nothing likes getting pelted with antitank missiles, even mechs. The second problem is this: why don’t you just use an airplane or a helicopter? They also have a great view of the battlefield, but they have the added benefit of being fast, maneuverable, relatively small, and way, waaaay cheaper to manufacture.

“Ah,” sayeth the mech enthusiast, “what about the arms and shoulders full of weapons?” Actually, to be honest, I would hope no mech enthusiast would say this, since it’s self-evidently ridiculous. You don’t need arms to carry weapons. Tanks and planes and ships have been mounting all kinds of weapons for ages and haven’t been putting them on arms or shoulders. You don’t need arms or hands to aim, you just need some kind of mount that can swivel or pivot as needed. They have these things – they’re called turrets and they work just fine. Furthermore, with the advent of advanced weapons technology, why can’t you simply use guided, fire-and-forget munitions. Then you don’t really have to worry about aiming the weapon at all, just the little targeting laser you stick somewhere it can spin around. Problem solved, and for a lot less money.

Mech Myth #3: Being a Mech Allows You To Carry More Weapons/Armor

I have no goddamned idea where anyone got this one, but I’ve seen it in Battletech, Warhammer, and other sources. Mechs are usually depicted as carrying the largest, most devastating weapons on the battlefield, while the tanks roll around with popguns. Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.

Every tank and, indeed, every military vehicle in the universe is a balance of three factors: mobility, weaponry, and armor. You can never quite have all three in spades, so you need to balance. Heavy tanks, for instance, trade mobility for superior weapons and armor. Airplanes trade armor for superior mobility and weapons. Things like helicopters and light tanks and so on try to find a balance of the three. There is only so much space inside one vehicle to fit all this stuff, and it just isn’t physically possible to do all three perfectly at once.

Enter the mech: because so much of its internal space must be devoted to getting it to stand upright and walk around, it must sacrifice in terms of armor and weaponry. Too much armor and the thing can barely walk (or bend, which is important for a walking thing). Weaponry has to be carefully mounted and built to handle recoil, or your mech will fall over as soon as it fires a gun (I would suggest bypassing the recoil problem altogether by mounting rockets, missiles, and possibly lasers, as those don’t have recoil, though they do present other problems we needn’t go into here). Even though it’s gigantic, it isn’t going to be able to carry a proportional amount of weapons and armor when compared to, say, a big tank. The tank is going to be about as mobile, too, and will have the advantage of being harder to spot, whereas the mech is going to be visible for kilometers in every direction. Considering that you should be able to afford 3-4 tanks to each mech, and that the weapons carried by the tanks are going to be similarly as good, what could the advantage to the giant mech possibly be?

Mech Myth #4: Mechs are Psychological Weapons

Like #2, the mechs have something here. A giant robot full of weapons is pretty scary, granted. I’m not so sure, however, they are significantly scarier than a bombing campaign or airstrike. I think an Apache helicopter blazing towards my position while it chews up all my buddies with its ridiculous main gun would be sufficient to scare the bejeezus out of me. You really don’t need a giant robot to do this, you just need something that can lay down tons of destruction.

Conclusion

In the end, there are very few actual advantages to a giant, fifty-foot tall mech, especially when you consider that other, already existing technologies are or will be able to match it in every category or, in combination, exceed it. Airpower already threatens to make armored battle tanks obsolete, and those you can hide much more easily. A giant robot walking down the street is going to get an air-to-surface missile in its face so quickly, it will barely be able to get off a shot. Then the thing is going to fall over, flail around a bit on the ground, and it’s going to be embarrassing for everybody. Especially if it then pulls out a sword or something or breaks apart into several lions and tries running down the…jet. God.

I would point out, however, that smaller mech-suits (more like powered armor), much like were seen in Avatar or District 9, do have a reasonable military future as far as I’m concerned. That, however, is a topic for another day.