a young boy is working on a skateboard
Tanner Snowden puts his bot ‘Amethyst’ in the arena at Palm Beach’s Robot Renegades competition.

When one thinks of a combat robotics competition, familiar TV shows may come to mind such as “BattleBots” or movies like “Big Hero 6.” But according to 11-year-old Tanner Snowden, who teaches kids both younger and older how to build bots from scratch, it’s just a lot of fun. 

In robot combat, creativity meets engineering in a thrilling competition. Participants design and build their own small-scale robots, each armed with unique weapons and strategies. The remote-controlled machines then face off in an arena, testing their builders’ ingenuity in the ultimate showdown. 

From a young age, both Tanner and his younger brother Jackson, 9, shared a deep fascination with robotics. Tanner, the inquisitive tinkerer, began dissecting broken toys to understand their inner workings. By the age of 5, he’d mastered soldering and used this skill to mend toys for his brother. This early aptitude blossomed further when Tanner built his first independent robot, and his passion for robotics truly ignited when his father, a childhood fan himself, introduced him to the “BattleBots” TV show, igniting a shared love for the world of combat machines. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with how things work,” said Snowden. “I really love robots. It’s fun to create something from a paper-pencil design and then see it come alive in person. ​​One of the first robots I built was an autonomous robot, so it would go around on its own, and when it got within a certain distance of an object, it would turn away so it wouldn’t have a collision. I built that robot when I was 7.”

Fueled by his own passion for combat robots, Tanner is on a mission to empower other kids. He recently launched Ruckus Robotics LLC, and is currently leading a multipart workshop called “RUCKUS ROBOTICS | Build-A-Battlebot” for nearly a dozen kids ages 8 to 14. The program, which started April 21, allows new members to join any time. In a collaborative environment, kids brainstorm robot concepts, learn 3D modeling and printing, and get hands-on experience testing and battling their creations. The ultimate goal? To refine their designs to competition standards and prepare them to enter combat robotics showdowns across Florida, competing as “Team Ruckus.”

Team member Skylor Willis has taken what he learned from the Ruckus Robotics instruction and created his own robot named “Atomic Bludger.” Together with Tanner’s creation “Amethyst,” the bots made their debut at the Robot Renegades competition in Palm Beach on April 13 and 14. Although they didn’t win the competition, both boys said it was a great learning experience for themselves and their team.

“Me and Tanner are the only ones that actually have a robot on the team,” said Willis. “A lot of the others have already made their drawings, but we were a bit ahead of them, so we were the only ones from our team who competed. It’s not really something I want to do as a job, but more of like a hobby.”

Robot combat is a thrilling arena fueled by passionate hobbyists. The complexity and cost of their creations run the gamut from nimble contenders to heavyweight powerhouses. To ensure fair fights and arena integrity, competitions use weight classes, including the “beetleweight” class for Snowden’s 3-pound “Amethyst” or the 1-pound “antweight” bots like Willis’. This allows similarly-sized machines to clash, with heavier robots naturally packing a bigger punch – and price tag. 

Safety remains paramount for everyone involved, from builders and operators cheering on their creations to the spectators in the stands. This is why robot combat arenas are typically enclosed by bulletproof screens, allowing for an entertaining spectacle without compromising safety.

“Our team members make the robots ourselves,” said Snowden. “We design it, make each and every part, then put it together ourselves. Nothing comes from a pre-made kit like a lot of the other competitors use. 

“I’m really lucky because my dad helped us with the 3D printing of each individual part. He’s an industrial designer so he’s pretty knowledgeable with how to make things. We are the only team from Monroe County, so it’s basically like we are representing the entire Florida Keys when we enter these competitions.”

“Because Tanner has gone through essentially all of the growing pains of what to do and what not to do regarding the robotics competition world, we started this team to make it easier for others to be involved,” said Tanner’s father Sean. “We are trying to see what kids are out there in our community that are interested in robotics. We’re not just doing combat robotics. It’s also a strategic competition for scholarships, so it’s a really great opportunity for kids to participate, since there are few opportunities like this in our small community.”

Ruckus Robotics currently has a few sponsors that make the program free for kids to join, but they are also looking for more sponsorship opportunities. 

More information on the team and sponsorship opportunities to keep the program free for its participants is at www.ruckusrobotics.com. Those interested in participating on the team can email ruckusroboticsllc@gmail.com

Jen Alexander
Jen Alexander is a teacher and volleyball coach at Sugarloaf School. She is a lover of travel, adventure, action, home improvement and family. A self-proclaimed "master of none," she is a doer of all and partaker of anything fun and exciting.