I’ll be aiming to do a mecha design post once per month. These are nothing major in their nature, as mecha design is really just really industrial design applied for fictional machines. I’ll be tagging all posts as mecha-design, and I’ll go back and tag the old ones as well.
This time I’d like to introduce ten factors that may affect your mecha design, or at least something you should consider about while doodling. Most of these posts will mostly touch on bipedal mechs, but non-humanoid designs should also consider the points in this post.
1; Silhouette size and lowering
Mechas tend to be rather sizable objects. In most cases they are few stories high and making their visible silhouette as small as possible is something you need consider about. Kneeling down often lowers height and silhouette size. Sometimes a transformation is done to lower the mech down and drop its frontal silhouette as much as possible. Lowering your mecha is also important when utilizing large weaponry.
Minimizing the profile of your mecha is not too similar to tank warfare. Certain tanks can depress their cannons ten degrees, and these ten degrees allow them to climb a hill a little bit for further protection, minimizing their visible silhouette from enemy tanks other side of the hill. Having a weapon that can be shot around head height may be a good idea when it comes to shooting from cover. These can range from Guncannon’s shoulder cannons to TSF’s Type-87 Assault Cannon sitting on a pylon.
Speaking of size of your mecha, remember to put up some
Giant robots are a good platform for all sorts of sensor clusters all around. Often these are not incorporated into the visuals of the mecha itself. For example, a 360-degree view requires multiple cameras and sensors to give that visual, for e.g. Gundam often have nothing else but their main camera, “eyes” and second camera in the back of their heads. It’s not too uncommon see a large camera cluster in a mech’s head, but rarely there’s anything that would resemble a sensor anywhere else. However, they are required to be there, and perhaps using certain kind of protective design for them can yield you relatively unique look. Of course, you can go more archaic and have a cockpit that doesn’t have a 360-degrees view. In case of cockpits with a glass dome, like in fighter jets, you may be able to go away with visible cameras altogether.
Having sensors also mean you need instruments in the cockpit to showcase them, from normal camera view to specialized views like IR. Mechas need a mix of instruments to show level of the horizon, energy levels and pressure levels and so on. Warfare units also require ammo count and damage charts visible alongside with numerous tactical views.
Speaking of cockpits, you need to think of
3; Cockpit placement
Where the cockpit is in your mecha changes its nature. Most popular places are in the middle of the chest and in the head. Chest area offers most protection as it is the centre of the mass while head gives smaller pin-point target and supposedly better view. Whatever the placement is, the cockpit needs to accommodate its pilot/s. Often you see cockpits that have a rather straight seat that reminds a fighter jet cockpit to an extent. Fighter cockpits are a good comparison point with mecha in general terms, but seeing how a mecha needs to be quick on its motions, the cockpit needs to have some sort of extra suspension to cushion the shocks. Be it sliding seat that dampens the trashing or suspend the whole cockpit somehow. Evangelion uses LCL to damped shocks and to protect the pilot, as well as give pure oxygen to the pilot. Life support system is important element a well, especially in space, and an emergency ejection system would be a nice thing to have, preferably with a powered armour of some sorts.
Speaking of shocks,
4; Joint reliance
Most mecha have basic metallic joints. Bandai has essentially engineered their designs to the point of replicating their functions in plastic. This is not all that impressing once you start reading on industrial designs and realise that you can design very intricate joints when you don’t need to actually give two shits about reality. Turn A Gundam has beautiful joints that are both well protected and function incredibly well.
However, in-universe you still need to give a reason why your mecha’s joints are not buckling and crackling under all the weight and strain. Having them sturdy material is one thing, something Gundam does almost every time. Another is to have biological component to it and design your mecha to be at least partially organic. Iczer-Robo is mostly an organic mecha, and thus its joints more or less look like pieces of armour. Underneath there is muscle and some sort of super strong skeletal structure underneath. EVA-units do this as well. You can also use artificial muscles that are made of complex composite materials, plastics and rubber to simulate functions of biological components while giving them better shock absorption. One example of this sort of artificial muscle structure can be found in TSFs.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that it all needs to have
5; Stable distribution
While the joints are there to keep your units standing and moving, one thing you need to consider in your design is how stable the design is. Mass is a bitch, and whatever design you have, it requires careful thinking how your mech will be able to stand up. Multiple legs are always an option, and e.g. Ligers from Zoids are very stable because of their four limbs and ability to shift their pose very widely. Bipedal mechs don’t really have this luxury, and this is why you need to consider how much mass can you pack, e.g. into backpacks of your units. If the centre of gravity is too far from the centre of you mecha, it needs to compensate it somehow, either leaning to an opposite direction, to have supports on the extended piece touch ground or opposite weights.
The sensor clusters come into play here as well, as those combined with automatic balancing system should keep the mecha straight without the pilot adjusting it manually. While many say that driving manual car is like piloting a mecha, driving an automatic is far closer analogue because a mecha requires large amounts of automated systems in order to have maximum efficiency. Our walking and running is mostly automated by subconscious, and automated systems streamline the operation to a similar level.
This applies in space scenarios as well, as a motion requires equal or higher countering motion to stop it. In Gundam you have AMBAC, or Active Mass Balance-Control. This system allows the Mobile Suits to shift their limbs and other points of mass to act out as intended. Similarly, your mecha may need some
Most mechas designed have some sort of propulsion system outside their limbs. Some have a secondary mode for wheeled drive, whereas others have thrusters to throw them around. Whereas AMBAC basically allows mecha to act in a zero-G, it can’t move unless something is pushing it forwards.
Attaching a variety of thrusters should allow your designed mecha to do some nice acrobatics. Larger thrusters allow jumps and flight, whereas smaller thrusters can be used to direct the unit better. For example, a small thruster on the front side of the left shoulder would push back at that point. With the help of other thrusters, it can do a faster turn or complete spin than what it would be able to do with just its basic joints. This effect is doubled in air and especially in space, where three-dimensional fighting requires additional abilities. Secondly, a propulsion system also allows your mecha to get on its feed faster and safer. Attitude control on any design is important, however it is realised.
Positioning of your thrusters is important. To push the centre of the mass carefully requires thrusters in the main body of your mecha. Gundam W’s Leos are good examples of mechas with thrusters in their groins, as this is one of the best places to have a thruster to soften a landing.
Going overboard with the thrusters may be a bad idea, as your design still needs to get some
Be it GN-Particles, G-Stone or any other form of bullshittium, no mecha will move without proper explanation how it gets its power. As a mechanical design at giant robot scale, limbs are very inefficient when it comes to power consumption. Whatever power source you have for them, it requires to be strong in order to move them at a reasonable rate. This can be a crux in your design overall, like it sometimes is in Gundam. Minovsky Particles allow large production of power that can be used in many ways and has some side effects. GN-Particles effectively are magic pixie dust that can be used to power things up as well as create anti-gravity.
You also need to consider why these things are used just for your mecha. Are they hard to produce, do they require certain size that hasn’t been miniaturised, is it an alien tech that normal people don’t have their hands on or is it just power of the soul? Whatever it is, consider how well such energy source could be used in more conventional vehicles, or rather, how would a conventional vehicle act with such a source and where it would be located. Don’t forget about the lubrication and other fuel for thrusters and such, if needed.
All this of course needs to have
Outside superweapons, mechas are large targets. Having a mixed amount of protective systems in your design is a good idea. These range from such simple things as wielding a shield to anti-personal weaponry to active anti-missile targeting systems. There are designs that are naked in this sense, but often they have sturdy armour to compensate, are fast enough to dodge things or have some sort of beam shields surrounding them. Depending on the role of the mecha you’ve designed, you might want to give their design some level of visible protection, even if it ends up being active layer that blows outwards.
These elements can be also made into weaponry or assist in other ways. TSFs’ Type-92 Multipurpose Supplemental Armour, i.e. shields, have a top part that can turn 90-degrees and contains hexagonal reactive armour plating, which can be punched into a BETA’s face and explode it. Sometimes shield have serrated edges to cut things, or house missiles or beam sabres. Spaced armour can be another option.
Whatever protection you have, you also need to consider
This isn’t a huge concern in fiction, unless you are aiming to some level of realism. Having the most complex design may not be the best of idea, as the more complex something becomes, the harder it is to maintain.
Consider old cars. They are rather straight in their approach how they can be fixed, there’s not much high technology in their engines or other systems. They are rather simple things to drive. Modern cars on the other hand have a large amount of tech thrown into them that a normal street walking mook can’t even lift the engine cover off anymore.
The same applies to mecha. The more complex systems, the more time and effort it will take to maintain it. Shape may not necessarily make the maintenance harder, but production of spare parts and the like may be affected. Thus, considering in-universe how certain elements are used and developed may be necessary. Armour panel lining may also showcase maintenance access hatches and the like, which you may have in your design. It’s been a fashion for some time just to fill the surface with all sorts of lines and have them lit up, even thou there’s absolutely no goddamn reason to have them.
Maintenance of course is easier if the mecha has a well-defined
Have a clear role in mind for the mecha. To use a real world example, the F-35 Lightning II was to be a multi-purpose fighter, but it really sucks in every field. It can’t turn well enough, it can’t climb, it can’t run away, it’s special shape and coating doesn’t make it all that stealthy, it’s heavy as hell, its thrust-to-weight ratio is lower because of this and the 20 tons of thrust puts an extreme stress on the engine components. Its fundamental design flaws keeps it being better than last generation of fighters. I love the TSF design, but the real fighter is slightly too fat for my taste.
The same applies to mecha design. Having too many elements to cover on one design will make it a clusterfuck and an eyesore. A transformation elements may give it an edge, but only if the transformation is smooth and well thought out, and we’re not going to touch transforming mecha designs anytime soon, because people have hang me from my balls when they hear me saying how Macross has essentially milked the exact same transformation scheme for thirty years now with slight changes here and there.
Fast mechas tend to have aerodynamic shape, supporting mechas have big guns and defensive ones are fat in armour. It’s like basic rock-paper-scissors. Role should be your starting point with the basic idea what you want, because all design ultimately stems from a need, to find something that fulfils a needed niche.
This is something that needs to be emphasized; a good mecha is design starts from an idea of something. A character like robot, a hero, a villain, the sniper or the like. These starting points give you a direction you to go, and when you have its role clear, then you can start thinking of the details.