For BP’s Suren Balendran, robotics isn’t just a hobby, it’s been a passion of his since he was in his teens and has even led to him becoming a regular competitor - with one of his own inventions – on a popular UK TV programme.
The robotics enthusiast first competed in the show Robot Wars at just 16, while still at secondary school. “It was when I was doing my GCSEs that I built my first robot,” Suren recalls. “When the programme was released, it was just something that interested me. I’d always liked engineering and I’m quite competitive; it was the perfect opportunity to combine both and make something.
Supernova, as his ferocious robot is named, was entered into Series Two of the BBC Robot Wars programme and every series thereafter until the show stopped in 2004.
“It was probably the most destructive robot,” admits Suren of his wedge-shaped contraption, which came second in the Robot Wars International League Championship – a spin-off of the TV programme – in 2004.“
The aim is to immobilize your opponent by whatever means, either flipping them over or damaging them enough to stop them. Mine uses a 20kg fly wheel with blades spinning at 2,500rpm, which cuts through an opponent’s body armour on impact. It’s really quite destructive.”
Suren continued with his hobby throughout his engineering studies at University College London (UCL), and went on to win sponsorship and support from the university, as well as major organizations, including Panasonic and British Aerospace.
So, when the Robot Wars programme announced in January this year that it would be relaunching, and Suren was invited to return, he jumped at the chance to compete again.
This summer, Supernova will compete alongside old favourites, including Sir Killalot, Matilda, Dead Metal and Shunt. Filming has been taking place in a new, purpose-built arena in Glasgow, Scotland.
But, after a hiatus of more than 10 years, the contest hasn’t been plain sailing for Suren, as an essential component that had been shipped from the US failed due to a manufacturing fault. “It wouldn’t turn in one direction,” says Suren, who eventually managed to borrow a replacement component from another competitor and had to spend a day at the film site modifying the Supernova to work with the new part. “Supernova’s drive system entered the arena untested!” he says.
Building robots is time consuming – Suren estimates it takes about two months in total. Rebooting Supernova has demanded disciplined time management since the long summer holidays of school and university have now passed, especially when renovating a house at the same time. But continuing his hobby has honed useful skills.
“I’ve learnt from building robots that there are a number of ways to get from A to B and to look for the simplest, fastest solution to get the best result.
A robotics hobby, alongside an engineering degree, has also brought credibility to his work at BP, where he supports new projects in the procurement of rotating equipment. “I understand the equipment that we buy and how we operate it. It helps me in my conversations with engineers and suppliers,” he says.
The show’s return has reawakened Suren’s passion…and his competitive streak. “It looks like the BBC will commission another series,” he reveals. “I’ve already told them that I would enter a new robot, so I’m currently in the process of designing something on the computer. If the programme does go ahead, I’ll start building it.”