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Thermal Imaging of Hot, Hot BattleBots

Teledyne FLIR thermal cameras seek the heat and catch the action in Battlebots competition

Since 2000, BattleBots Destruct-A-Thon has given audiences a front-row seat to wanton robotic destruction. And while it’s been fun to watch a bloodless bloodsport, there’s always been an invisible element that holds our attention: the unseen, inner workings of the bot competitors. Until now.

In 2023, World Championship VII’s second episode introduced thermal cameras provided by Teledyne FLIR giving viewers an unprecedented look into the workings of the bot fighters and giving BattleBots another tool for keeping the bots safe (for humans, anyway). Mounted above the BattleBots BattleBox, the FLIR T1020 captured hours of footage while the handheld FLIR C5 was at hand for in-person checks on the bots. And while the first BattleBots bout to use thermal cams might only have been the standard three minutes, it was one for the ages.

Safety first

Before the match begins, both teams have to make sure their bot is only hazardous to other bots. As the design rules note: “Batteries, high-pressure tanks, fuel tanks and fuel lines must be sufficiently protected. If you (or we) can jam the blade of a long screwdriver through the outer shell/frame of the bot and hit a battery, pressure tank, fuel tank or fuel line, it is not sufficiently protected.”

Thermal imaging is particularly useful for identifying issues with batteries. Any kind of unexpected ignition is obviously bad news, but it’s especially important to watch for a chain reaction of thermal runway, when one battery heats up enough to start the battery next to it on fire. And once safety concerns have been satisfied, it’s time for the bout’s competitors, Fusion and Emulsifier, to try to destroy each other utterly.

Sparks fly

Within seconds, Fusion’s wickedly effective vertical weapon sends Emulsifier flipping across the BattleBox. Then the sparks really fly as Emulsifier manages to get itself back into position and under Fusion. But Emulsifier is already clearly gashed. Less obvious but visible through the heat-sensing cameras are the heat trails blurring behind the competitors’ treads and wheels. For future bouts, improved traction could be the key to victory (assuming there’s any of either left to rebuild).

Components heat up

Even before Fusion took to the ring, it was already known for a conspicuous design flaw: catching fire. But in its latest design, its deadly spinning horizontal blade doubles as a cooling fan, like a component in the world’s most ornery gaming PC.

A minute into the fight, the blade’s certainly been effective at leaving pieces of Emulsifier littered around the arena. And it’s kept Fusion from bursting into flames immediately. But the FLIR T1020 footage showed that internally, it was already heating up. In moments, that problem’s going to be very visible.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

When smoke starts pouring from Fusion’s front, it’s clear that Fusion’s team hasn’t fixed its main design flaw. This also marks a moment where thermal imaging can offer essential information: a lithium battery fire releases harmful fumes that require extra precautions. But the match goes on, Fusion’s battery presumably still working.

Bad news for Emulsifier. Bad news too, as it turns out, for Fusion.

And where there are flames, there’s definitely more fire

Flames are hardly new to the BattleBots Arena: there are already classic moments of spontaneous combustion, and competitors like Gruff and Complete Control actually come equipped with flamethrowers and torches. But what happens to Fusion isn’t built in. Still pouring smoke, its front bursts into flames, even while both of its weapons keep spinning at full speed.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over

With less than a minute left in the match, both competitors look ragged: Fusion pours smoke like a deadly little pizza oven with a great paint job, and Emulsifier isn’t all there.

No thermal cameras are needed to diagnose Fusion’s main problem (it’s on fire!) but the BattleBots team could check its heat levels and then confirm whether they have time to move it to limit damage to the arena. 

They don’t need to. It’s over.

The tale of the tape

In the end, Fusion emerges victorious, even while BattleBots crews are venting the smoke over its smoldering remains. And the replays show more than audiences have ever seen before. BattleBots’ first-ever thermal-imaging replay shows the moment before Fusion began acting a bit too much like its namesake and generating runaway combustion. As Fusion speeds toward Emulsifier for another clash, patches of yellow, red and white, indicating increased heat, spread across remaining green patches. 

In moments, those heat signatures will be the fire we’ve already seen with our own eyes, but thermal cameras saw it first.