Miami-Dade County

What happens when a 220-pound robot named Witch Doctor fights it out on BattleBots?

Team photo from left to right: Paul Grata, Jennifer Villa, Andrea Suarez, Michael Gellatly.
Team photo from left to right: Paul Grata, Jennifer Villa, Andrea Suarez, Michael Gellatly.

South Floridians will have a robot to root for if they tune into Thursday night’s episode of BattleBots, an ABC series in which homemade remote-controlled combat robots rumble against each other for cash prizes.

Among the contestants is a Miami-based 220-pound robot named “Witch Doctor” designed and built by a team that includes University of Miami engineering alumni Andrea Suarez (Class of 2011) and Michael Gellatly (Class of ’06). “Witch Doctor” made it to the quarterfinals last season before losing to the much-feared “Tombstone,” a rival robot from California.

Suarez had no interest whatsoever in robotics or engineering when she showed up for freshman Open House at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic school in Coconut Grove, 13 years ago. She loved painting and sculpture, and figured she would pursue a career in fine arts. But she was captivated by an exhibit of the school’s robotics team, in which a half-dozen girls were showing off their robot.

“Engineering and robots are not usually things girls are pointed to, but I saw those girls, who had built a robot from scratch, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is really cool,’ and from there I completely changed my career path,’’ said Suarez, 28, who works in research and development at Zimmer Biomet, developing implants for trauma injuries.

She competed on the Carrollton robotics team, which won second-place at a national competition her senior year. It was during high school, competing with light-weight robots, that she met Gellatly, who was on UM’s robotics team.

Gellatly, a 32-year-old graduate of Stranahan High in Broward, says he was destined to be an engineer since he was very young. He loved taking his toys apart, “and sometimes putting them back together,” And he was a huge fan of the original BattleBots show on Comedy Central.

“I thought that show was totally cool, and I already was coming up with ideas of what kind of robot I would build if I ever got the chance,” he said. Gellatly works with Suarez at Zimmer Biomet, which is helping sponsor the Witch Doctor team, whose other two members are Jennifer Villa and Paul Gratta. They created the robot, and the name, in 2010, thinking it would appeal to children.

Witch Doctor’s popularity among young fans led a company called Hexbug to create a Witch Doctor toy, which is scheduled to be launched later this year. Kids will be able to reenact battles with replicas of their favorite robots.

“The idea of BattleBots and these toys is to encourage kids to go get a group of friends together and build something together,” Suarez said. “That’s how we all got started.”

As Suarez and Gellatly enjoy more success, the hobby becomes more expensive. What started out as $2,000-$3,000 robots in college have morphed into more elaborate machines that can cost between $10,000 to $30,000 to construct.

ABC gives a stipend to each competing team, and then they win prize money for each round, as much as $50,000 for the winner. The rest of the money comes from sponsors and out of pocket.

The other challenge was transporting “Witch Doctor” from Miami to Los Angeles for the taping of the show in April. Anyone who has tried to ship freight knows how pricey that can be. And, the consequences of losing the package would be devastating. Some people break their robots apart, load the parts in multiple suitcases and travel with them. But Gellatly said that was too risky.

“Can you imagine standing there waiting for your luggage and one bag doesn’t show up?” he said.

So, they put Witch Doctor in a 600-pound crate and sent it by truck.

“The whole thing has been so exciting,” Suarez said. “My parents came from Cuba and the whole concept of their daughter making robots was really foreign to them. I used to show them my robot videos on You Tube. Now, we have a national stage to show that what we do is real, rewarding and hopefully, will encourage other young girls and boys to be creative.”