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Digger Wars break out ? don't try this on site!

PLANT HIRE

His off-the-wall ideas have included Diggerland, the Land Shuttle and Formula JCB Racing, but now HE Services chief Hugh Edeleanu has unveiled Digger Wars as the next level of construction equipment-related entertainment.

Geoff Ashcroft reports

FEW COMPANIES can claim to have put as much entertainment into the construction sector as plant hirer HE Services. With three Diggerland theme parks, backhoe racing and a Guinness World Record for the fastest journey from John O'Groats to Land's End with a mechanical excavator, boss Hugh Edeleanu has had plenty to laugh about.

And the entertainment is not about to stop.

If you've seen television's Robot Wars, you'll have an inkling of where the inspiration came from for Mr Edeleanu's next challenge ? Digger Wars. But where television's electro-mechanical heroes are remote-controlled from a safe distance, Edeleanu's machines need the operators in the seats.

The first event of its kind took place earlier th is month. But what does it take to make an event based on gladiatorial combat between mini excavators? Construction News visited HE Group's engineering development department to see the machines undergoing conversion.

'The challenge comes from having some fun by duelling excavators in a wrestling match, but in a safe and controlled environment, ' says Mr Edeleanu.

'It's certainly not a demolition derby for excavators.' He says the initial idea was to operate the machines in some sor t of mechan ical boxing match, but they proved too heavy and slow. So Digger Wars is intended to see machines 'wrestle' with each other, pushing, tipping and forcing each other out of a marked area.

The task of preparing the equipment fell to Garrard Collins, HE's group engineer and project leader for the Digger Wars programme.

'We're very much a jobbing-shop for the group and this is where many of Hugh's ideas come to f ruit ion, ' says Mr Collins. 'But we have to do it for the minimum of cost. I often ask for a budget, but have to improvise and work my way round problems ? it's a bit like the TV programme Scrapheap Challenge really. If I can't buy what I would really like, I have to beg, steal, bor row or just make it.' Mr Collins' penchant for breaker's yards and improvisation has been honed into quite a skill. His eye for adaptation and modification swiftly turns out silk purses from sow's ears, and his Digger Wars theatrical creations are no exception.

Fou r m ini excavators have been modif ied for the task, but in a way that allows them to be returned to a rental condition when the fight is over. Each has been themed with a paint scheme and identity to match.

'We have a tiger, a dragon, a dinosaur and a crocodile, ' he says.

With safety paramount, Mr Collins' f irst task was to remove any glass in the cab structures and 'mesh in' the 801s' ROPS/FOPS cabs at the front and on both sides to protect the operator from st ray hits f rom an oncom ing boom and also to keep them contained in the event of an overturn.

'We know how stable these machines are ? it does take a lot to roll them over ? and we're also aware of how much protection the operator has in the event of a roll, ' he says. 'But we want to ensu re as far as possible that inju r ies are as good as elim inated.' For the first cab conversion, Mr Collins reached for 5 mm steel plate, but with circular holes cut throughout to enable reasonable visibility from the seat.

'It looked tough, almost military, but was probably a bit over the top, ' he says. 'For the next machine we used strip steel and created a steel mesh pattern around the cab. This gave a much bet ter view to the blade and tracks to help with positioning and manoeuvring, though it still keeps the operator safe from the attacking machine's weapons.' With steel welded over the front and side openings, cab access had become t r icky ? so Mr Collins made a hinged door to fit in the rear window area and then provided steps to climb in at the rear. The standard lap belt remains, although four-point rally harnesses and bucket seats were considered at one point.

'There will be padding in the cab, although every operator is required to wear neck braces and crash helmets, and with a rear door there's no fear of anyone becoming trapped in the cab, ' he says. 'We also removed any plastic panels from the machine so we could give the excavators a coat of armour using 5 mm steel plate.' To ensure the fun can continue as long as possible, Mr Collins and his team have covered the boom and arm cylinders with plate steel to avoid unnecessary ram and hose damage. With the bucket linkage and tipping cylinder removed from the end of the dipper arm, this has created an opportunity to fit different weapons to each fighting machine.

'Operators will be able to select their weapon of choice, ' he says. 'We've made a trident fork, pushing plate, mace, spear and a rubber basher which uses a car tyre.' Side rubbing st r ips have been f it ted to the upper structures to soften the fall and lifting eyes have been added to the cab roofs to help put each machine back on its feet for the next bout.

'This should save f luids too, as oil and diesel could leak when they're on their sides, ' he says.

In the cab, the standard control system remains, and there's no limitation on engine speed or throttle. Each operator will be able to fully exploit the 801.5's full performance when battling. But the match referee will have a remote radio device that will simultaneously stop all four machines' engines if things do get out of hand.

'There are some very competitive and keen operators out there, so we have to be ready for some surprises and stay in control at all times, ' he says.

Each cab roof will also carry a short pipe containing fireworks. The idea, says Mr Collins, is that operators can set off the roof-mounted f lares as a means of waving the white f lag and retiring. Additional signalling comes from a smoke canister under the chassis, just to make su re th ings stop when someone has had enough, or if a machine develops a problem.

If Digger Wars proves a success, there's every chance that the four machines may be kept in their fighting condition and used for other events.

'But if not, a new coat of paint and a replacement cab frame would put them all back to ex-hire condition, ' Mr Collins says. 'Low hours, onecareful owner machines. What a bargain!'