Let the Games Begin

The FIRST robotics competition leaps onto a new controller platform

4 min read

Throughout the history of sports, technology has come in and changed the game. Football players in the Knute Rockne era of the 1920s, with their minimal padding and leather helmets, played a game much different from the game of today. A 1970s redesign of the gymnastics uneven bars changed that sport dramatically: the bars became smaller and easier to grip and were moved farther apart, enabling the release moves and giant swings we see today. Aluminum bats, also introduced in the ’70s, dramatically increased the number of home runs hit in amateur baseball, changing it from a fielders’ game to a hitters’ game.

Now the sport of robotics is getting some game-changing technology of its own. For the 2009 high school FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition beginning in January, a 32-bit PowerPC�based embedded controller is replacing the 8-bit microcontroller that’s been used to run the robots for the past eight years. The event organizers expect that the technology will let more than 43 000 participating high school students tackle tougher challenges than those of previous years. The specific task the robots must perform while working against other robots will be announced on 3 January. Previous challenges included throwing balls into goals (Aim High), placing rings onto racks (Rack ’N’ Roll), and stacking pyramids onto goals (Triple Play).

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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