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In this world, mechs (think MechWarrior) have been developed and have become formidable fighting machines. They are capable of dominating the battlefield and can carry multiple heavy weapons into war. And now they are used for sports.

The citizens of this world are a bloodthirsty one and watch these mechs tear each other to pieces at weekend events that have become famous the world over. Each weekend a new match is thrown down and only one mech/team remains in the arena. The only issue with this is that the organisers don't want to spend the millions of funds replacing the equipment each week, and the problem with fatal incidents is only growing. A new solution needs to be thought of to preserve the lives of the pilots, the machinery used in the battles and the entertainment of the fans. There have been some attempts to reduce the chaos and death from the old ways, with no success. They are:

  • Holographic battles (This didn't work as it was obvious to fans that there wasn't any destruction happening)
  • Remote control drones (A particularly inventive team managed to broadcast a jamming signal to disable the opponent's mech and claim victory)
  • AI drones (The fans don't have anyone to root for, and it is much less exciting)

The requirements are that the battles must be between human pilots and must be live-fire battles. The largest priority is the preservation of life with preservation of equipment a lower priority. What possible solutions are there?

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    $\begingroup$ In a sport surely you could just ban jamming technology? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 15 '15 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ Logs on the controller sending the commands would not tie up to what the mech was actually doing, recorded on the video of the event. This would be pretty damming evidence that some one was up to no good. It would be quite easy for the referees to record the signals sent around the arena. Require the mechs to use encrypted communications that the ref’s also have keys to, should also allow the mech to confirm who sent the signals. $\endgroup$ – Wil Selwood Jun 15 '15 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ That's completely untrue. @WilSelwood is correct. Encrypted communications would prevent spoofing. Logging of traffic would show attempts to interfere or jam. The source of said interference could be triangulated and detected rapidly and the match paused while it was dealt with. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 15 '15 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Multiple transmitters operating would be a give away. Also given that the the controllers will have physical access to the mech before the match starts it will be no problem to upload an encryption key large enough to be impossible to crack in the duration of the match. Afterwards it doesn't matter. The logs and keys could be published to prove what happened if they want really good transparency. $\endgroup$ – Wil Selwood Jun 15 '15 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ A brief explosion in the audience can interrupt a game with human players. There are lots of ways to break the rules which disrupt gameplay, it's not a reason to not have the rules or the game. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 15 '15 at 16:53
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Reducing material costs to the organizers

Make the stakes high enough, and the organizers won't have to pay one thin dime towards the mechs -- the competitors themselves will pay to field them.

This is how sports such as NASCAR already work: There's a shiny pot awaiting the winner, but to get there you, not NASCAR, have to buy a car and put a driver in the seat.

As you've described it, this is a hugely-attended sport. The organizers are necessarily making an absolute killing from ticket sales, advertising, and broadcast rights. They could easily put some of that toward a ridiculously huge cash pot awaiting the victor, as well as the various other rewards that would necessarily come with being a winner (spokesmech offers, appearances at events, etc.). Get some corporate sponsorship by slapping a big sticker on the mech's side (a la NASCAR cars), and you've got even more of the cost of fielding these things covered.

Reducing the risk to life

Remote-control is the simplest solution here, short of turning to simulated battles, and actually is not hard to accomplish while defeating jamming tech -- within the confines of a sport, that is.

First off, shield the arena itself from EM. This would block any external transmitters from being able to broadcast any signal to any mech. Then, the organizers themselves provide each mech/team with access to a dedicated transmitter in the arena and a randomly-assigned frequency; on fight day, the mech's operators/mechanics would program that frequency into the mech, and then plug the remote controls into the cables that feed said transmitter. Add a few sensors in the arena to detect "rogue" signals from any mech that aren't on its assigned frequency (with immediate power-down of all mechs and forfeiture of the match the consequences of breach of this rule), and you've got a very well-hardened system to prevent jamming. (Spoofing is trivial to defeat: Encrypt the signal between controller and mech. Any signal that doesn't decrypt properly gets discarded (and, of course, logged in case it is evidence of attempted tampering).)

For a little extra assurance, the organizers can mandate a "status" signal that the mechs broadcast back toward their transmitters (again on their assigned frequency); any failure of this signal (e.g. via damage to the mech's radio gear, or to the transmitter itself) would be immediately detected by the organizers, and all transmitters promptly shut down while the problem is investigated. A randomly-generated encryption key, provided to the mech's owners on fight day, would prevent spoofing this signal as well as revealing the cheaters trying to do so (and thus causing them to forfeit the match). Do the same thing from the controllers themselves, and now the organizers can even detect tampering of or damage to the cables connecting remotes to transmitters.

Add in surprise inspections of equipment to look for any sort of jamming technology, and the risks and costs of getting caught make simply fielding a better mech the most cost-effective way of winning matches and, ultimately, claiming the title of Top Mech.

Bonus: Alternative to reduce the risk to life

Similar to NASCAR regulations, mandate that pilots be enclosed within ultra-hardened pods. Any damage to/breach of these pods would be considered the "death" of the relevant mech; the status of these pods would be monitored remotely by the organizers, and an immediate "stop" command sent to all mechs on the field once one pod is damaged/breached. (In the case of a team match, the stop might be temporary: The "killed" mech might be removed from the field to save the pilot, and then the match resumed with the remaining competitors.)

Additionally, give pilots a "panic button" they can hit if they ever feel they are in danger and unable to safely proceed; this would be analogous to a NASCAR driver leaving the race by pulling off the track, or the crew chief declaring that a car stopping at a pit-stop is unable to continue the race. While they've forfeited this match, they've lived to fight another day in another match. (And as a bonus, the button could be hit in a losing match to preserve the mech itself, thus reducing property damage as well.)

There's no way these pods could be designed to be fool-proof, and thus there's still the risk of a pilot being injured or even killed -- just like a NASCAR driver can be injured or killed on the race track. Keeping the pilots inside the mechs necessarily means that they will face this risk; the best you can do is to reduce it as much as possible while still keeping as much of the original "feel" of the sport as you can -- no matter how good the pyrotechnics, there will invariably be people who simply tune the whole sport out entirely if the fights are reduced to simulations in any way. A blood-thirsty spectator demands a blood-thirsty sport, not pretty-but-mostly-harmless explosions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Corporate sponsorship is absolutely possible, as you mentioned it's the whole reason sports like NASCAR and Formula-1 exist. They key is just having regulations in place to protect the pilots/drivers as much as possible. Maybe restrictions on weapon types and damage output could help, so people don't get clever and drop an artillery piece on the field that annihilates the opponent's starting area in one shot. $\endgroup$ – thanby Jun 15 '15 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ A good supporting rule here could be disqualification for any mech/team that breaches an opponent's pod or kills a pilot. In other words, the rules of the game would discourage overkill and encourage non-fatal incapacitation. $\endgroup$ – Bryon Jun 15 '15 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ A simple method to discourage jamming: all mechs have standard controller, and a plug-in receiver. On fight day, each mech is given a randomly-selected receiver, and its pilot is given the corresponding controller. Anyone hoping to jam will obviously not want to jam their own mech, but they have no idea which frequency any given mech is operating on, so they can't single out any mech to jam (or not jam). The only useful case now is when you field an autonomous mech, and just jam everyone, leaving yours the only one active... $\endgroup$ – anaximander Jun 16 '15 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @anaximander That's the same effect as... well okay, reading it now, it's not actually what I wrote. It's what I meant, though, and I'm going to fix it now. Thanks for bringing that up! $\endgroup$ – Kromey Jun 16 '15 at 15:53
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Basically, you're designing the mechanical version of the World Wresting Federation meets LaserTag, where damage is fake but the show is spectacular. Instead of real damage to the mech, you have two sets of armor. The outer layer is thinner and can be blown off due to "damage". The inner layer is the real armor that protects both the pilot and the investment.

There are ways to make live fire "live" with the necessary compromises to preserve investment. Instead of a true HEAT or AP round, make the munition into pyrotechnics like you'd see at a fireworks display. They're pretty and make a huge boom but don't do much damage. Really high energy weapons such as lasers can simply be tuned down to look pretty. Gauss rifles and other hyper-velocity weapons are just not useful because there's not much for the audience to see so from both the safety and spectacle perspectives, they're not useful.

Design the mechs to fail in certain pre-defined ways and with special effects during the failure. If a mech takes enough hits to its arm then the arm falls off in a wild display of pyrotechnics. With enough center-of-mass hits, the mech is disabled and more pyrotechnics. This way, the mechs can be put back together relatively quickly and the huge investment in internal structure, powerplant and actuators can be preserved.

NASCAR and Formula 1 are incredibly safe sports despite the very high speeds involved. Mechs could be designed for maximum preservation of the pilot. Indeed, if these mechs are adapted from the military then they have already been designed this way. Accidents will happen of course but make improvements to the mechs and it'll work out.

Edit for comment: As @2012rcampion said, you make fake buildings then blow them up for real. Urban settings are still more expensive than outdoor settings without buildings (though you'd need to balance environment effects such as disrupted animal life). Perhaps an urban setting would be a season finale.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a really good answer. The one issue I have is how would the destruction of scenery be simulated? $\endgroup$ – Universalerror Jun 15 '15 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Universalerror The same way it gets 'simulated' for movies: you build fake buildings and blow them up for real! $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Jun 15 '15 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ Good luck! Send me a link to whatever it is that you come up with. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 15 '15 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Universalerror Both the methods (from Green and Kromey) don't have to be mutually exclusive. Think about it, today we have "fake-damage" WWE matches watched by one group of people, and actual brutal MMA fights watched by another audience. Different people prefer different amounts of drama and risk. Edit: I agree with Green, I want a link to whatever you make :) I've always been a huge BattleTech nerd $\endgroup$ – thanby Jun 15 '15 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ I could believe corporate sponsorship would be more than enough, as per Green's answer. Even in MMA those guys don't just get beat up and go home to take a Tylenol and sleep it off (usually, anyways), their sponsors spend millions to rehab them as fast as possible and check for permanent damage so they can fight again. Then the cost of sports medicine and training to keep them in perfect fighting shape is roughly proportional to what a 'mech team would spend on repairing their equipment. Regulations could keep damage from being too ridiculous/dangerous. $\endgroup$ – thanby Jun 15 '15 at 17:36
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Cloning

With cloning you can preserve life, but it might require more advanced technology than you had in mind for your world.

First it needs to be possible to make a backup of a pilot's brain and mind.

Once you've got that, it needs to be possible to clone a pilot and accelerate the growth of the clone so that the clone quickly reaches the age of the pilot.

And finally it needs to be possible to place the backup of the pilot's brain and mind into the pilot's clone after the pilot died.

Luckily for the pilot, the backup will be made prior to a fight, so he/she won't remember dying.

This approach however doesn't take the preservation of equipment in mind. Though if a pilot can get bonus points for taking out an opponent quickly, then you might also preserve a lot of equipment in most fights. But then again that depends on the pilot's personality. For example, some pilots might be more brutal and cruel, enjoying it to kill their opponents slowly.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesnt really minimise cost, nor does it make the sport any safer. Also you would be walking into an ethical minefield... Which of course could become a major plot point, it worked well for Doctor Who tardis.wikia.com/wiki/The_Flesh $\endgroup$ – nickson104 Jun 16 '15 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ @nickson104 It does however preserve the pilots, which is the biggest loss. It is still very moraly ambiguous and I don't plan to have the required technology, but it may be worth remembering in the future. $\endgroup$ – Universalerror Jun 16 '15 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ The interesting thing here is that a pilot doesn't remember losing, because the backup is before the fight. This means they can only learn from their mistakes by watching the replays and going over any telemetry. If the brain-backup system is small and fast enough, you could take rolling backups of their brain during the fight, and then their last memory would be seconds before death. Might be some psychological trauma there, but it's how the game EVE Online does it, and also the Altered Carbon books. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Jun 16 '15 at 13:03

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