In games, mech pilots often have the job perk of dying in their seats. With mech windshields spiderwebbed with bullets, arm-guns overheated, energy cores depleted of uranium, and bipedal legs leaking hydraulic fluid across whatever near-future landscape they’re fighting in, oftentimes these mechs just blow up and players respawn across the map. Overwatch, Titanfall, and various Call of Duty iterations use multiplayer mech combat to their advantage (and the suspension of disbelief for the player). It’s all fun and games, but how often do you think about the long-term safety, maintenance, and unintended side effects of giant robots? If these mechs were real, a lot would change—and a lot could go wrong.
Although fictional mechs come in all shape and sizes, the widely used hulking, humanoid mech design is the most common in gaming, and in life, as we’ve seen with real life attempts to build the kinds of giant mechs that we love in fiction. From Japan’s 1:1 scale Gundam in Diver City to 2017’s USA versus Japan giant robot duel to popular movies and media like Pacific Rim, Power Rangers, and even the campy Robot Jox, the mech designs that capture our imaginations are all essentially armored humanoids, just sized up. But all four experts we spoke to, from real-life mech builders to heavy machinery designers, agreed that the famous humanoid form should be tossed out from the get-go.
“Why do two feet suck?” asks Jon Pope, an industrial designer of heavy machinery. “Unless you put really huge feet on it, it’s flotation and ground compaction, really.” Few urban environments are built for the heavy, concentrated-mass steps of a mech like Fallout’s Liberty Prime—the pavement would collapse, and basements or tunnels would turn into massive potholes.
Natural environments wouldn’t fare much better, according to Erol Ahmed, director of communications for Built Robotics, an unmanned construction robotics company. “Soil is not solid; they have different weight densities if it’s sandy or clay.” Material testing if a battlefield is silty clay or loamy sand, and then redistributing weight accordingly, isn’t exactly a bipedal mech’s most pressing goal during combat, but it would need to be if its pilot wanted to survive.
Pope sees three solutions to bipedal mechs in real life: massive shoes comparable to metal clown boots, multilegged mechs that look more like caterpillars or worms, or a mech with treads instead of legs. “Ultimately, I would argue, if you want a robot that’s just going to destroy everything, I would build a giant bulldozer,” Pope says. He designs giant bulldozers for a living; the design makes sense. Shagohod, the Metal Gear Solid 3 mech known as the Treading Behemoth, was designed to use screw treads instead of Metal Gear’s chicken legs, and the design is much more stable (that is, until Solid Snake bombs it).
But especially with treads, piloted mechs can be hellish for riders. According to Jon Pope, operators of industrial vehicles, like wheel tractor-scrapers or log skidders, can only drive machines for a few years. “After that your body literally cannot handle it anymore,” he says. Demolition vehicles can be the same (and similar to mechs in their goal of destruction). “You’re constantly hitting a wall all day long,” Pope says. “It can be a carnival ride of a day.”
This lines up with the experiences of two game-inspired mechs that were built in real life. When Matt Oehrlein, CEO of the giant-mech company MegaBots, began designing the two mechs that his company built, his north stars were ones piloted in the 1995 computer game MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. Although the in-game mechs were bipedal, stability made him switch to treads, and his mech rocked a lot when he sat in the pilot’s seat. Starting up and driving felt to him like riding a rollercoaster or a carnival ride, and less like driving a vehicle. “The engine starts up and it just roars to life and the whole robot is shaking. There’s big hydraulic hoses with 3000-psi hydraulic oil running up through them and they’re, I don’t know, a foot away from your spine. If that hose bursts, real bad things are happening,” Oehrlein says. “Most of the fear comes from the unreliableness of the system.”
Unreliability is a serious problem for mechs of any size—even with what we could view as “simple” weapons used in robot combat competition shows like Battlebots. Flippers, spinners, and grabbers are complicated tools that could be damaged in play, according to Battlebots judge Lisa Winter. Throughout the show, robots break and the operators don’t know why. Adding flamethrowers, ion cannons, and large-rocket missiles to already complicated giant mechs would likely only result in more mistakes and inexplicable failures. Mechs with simpler designs and fewer moving parts make the most sense to rebuild today: think Half-Life’s Dog or Alien’s Power Loader, for example.