BattleBots as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Champion Donald Hutson

Listen to the latest podcast interviewing the 2018 Battlebots Champion Paul Ventimiglia

How do you engineer the next major breakthrough in robotics? Chances are your first answer wasn’t pitting robots in a CPU-to-CPU battle to the kill screen, but BattleBots may prove otherwise.

This summer BattleBots, a television series where engineers design and operate remote-controlled machines in a combat elimination tournament, returned to primetime network television in the United States after more than a decade off the air. The revival met with widespread acclaim and has proven to be a great tool for getting people interested in engineering and robotics.

Most importantly, BattleBots and other robotics competitions serve as attractive entry points to get young people interested in STEM fields. While cynics might dismiss these competitions as “games,” these are the gateways to educate future engineers who will turn robotic fiction into fact (I’d like to thank these future innovators in advance for building the robot that cares for me in my golden years).

To get some insight into these competitions, we connected with robotics enthusiast and SOLIDWORKS user Donald Hutson. A long-time participant of robotics competitions, including BattleBots, Donald Hutson is robotics engineer with Qualcomm Research by day, engineering mentor, and maker in his spare time. During this multi-part blog series, Donald will share his perspectives on the important role competitions play in educating students, challenges in robotics engineering and his experience with BattleBots.

Donald Hutson with BattleBots Champion Diesector

How do you get to the BattleBots arena? Same way as Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

Since the early 2000s, Donald has been helping students find their way through FIRST Robotics Competitions. “Robot competitions convince our kids to work on harder problems that they’re trying to solve,” Donald said. “FIRST, in particular, is great at introducing students to the mechanical aspect of robotics design while not intimidating kids with difficulties related to automation.”

His introduction to FIRST came after BattleBots’ first television run came to an end. “I was looking for something fun to do and I’ve been a volunteer for FIRST Robotics Competitions ever since,” Donald stated. During the FIRST competition season, during the build season Donald easily spends upwards of 20 hours a week teaching team 1572, aka the Hammerheads, SOLIDWORKS CAD and CNC machining.

Last year, the Hammerheads took home their first ever 1st place regional win, earning the team a spot in the National Championship in St. Louis. “SOLIDWORKS has been great for getting students to build FIRST competition designs,” Donald said. “We ‘trick’ kids into wanting to draw one or two parts, which pushes them into learning new things. We can’t talk them into it, so we show them and the right kind of kids will take the bait and start drawing the entire thing before you know it.”

FIRST Robotics Regional Champions

Same passion to learn, new tools to teach the craft

While Donald was growing up, programs and engineering tools, like FIRST and SOLIDWORKS, did not exist. “I knew what I wanted to learn,” Donald said. “I was always taking things apart and building them. I signed up for auto shop, woodworking and drafting in school. All of these things showed me what I was hungry to learn.”

While the technology changed, a passion for kids to learn has stayed the same. “Engineering is a special niche for kids who are always trying to build something and learn what makes things work, Donald explained. “SOLIDWORKS is a good fit for this mindset. It’s virtual Legos. Once kids learn the skill of making something, all of the gloves are off. When we show them what they draw is not fake and it can be assembled, the kids are immediately invested.” Click here to learn more about FIRST Robotics programs in your area.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two of our interview with Donald Hutson where the discussion shifts to Battlebots, the future of robotics, and his amazing work with Qualcomm and the Neurosciences Institute. Click here to read part 2.  



Mike Fearon

Mike Fearon

Senior Manager Brand Offer Marketing, Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS. Video game world champion and whisky advocate. I like turtles.