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Robots for Real: The Robowranglers From Texas

At the FIRST Robotics Championship, one defending champion team learns engineering-and life-lessons

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: The Robowranglers From Texas


Narrated by Prachi Patel
Reported by Prachi Patel and Henry Howard

Prachi Patel: I'm Prachi Patel, and it was total pandemonium this past spring when high school students brought their robots to the Georgia Dome.

Student: At least half of the guys or half the people that came over here were like, "Your robot looks like a monster.” So I was like, "Yeah, that's why we designed it the way we did.”

Prachi Patel: Team 148, the Robowranglers from Greenville, Texas, won the 2008 FIRST Robotics Championship. The pressure was on this year.

Student: A lot of teams use the fact that we're a big gun as a target rather than going and doing it themselves.

Student: Yeah, people like the underdog, they wanna see, you know, the team that's not good at all come out on top. They always shoot for the one that's trying to take over, and the one that's doing well, they want to see it lose.

Prachi Patel: It's a tough competition, with 344 teams. Once the rules are announced, students have six weeks to make their robots. This year, the robots had to throw balls into the other teams' trailers while zipping around on a low-friction playing field, which is like driving on ice.

Prachi Patel: After a lot of practice the first day, the competition started on the second day. One match after the other, testing team 148's robots, strategies, and skills.

Prachi Patel: The event is like any other varsity sport, but there are no rivalries here.

Student: How are y'all doing so far? 3–2. 3–2? That's the same as us then…

Prachi Patel: All matches are played between alliances of three teams. So your opponent in one match can be your partner in another. And you have to quickly learn to work with other teams. It's designed to be a microcosm of the real engineering world, says the Robowranglers' mentor, Corey Chitwood.

Corey Chitwood: This is really kinda like how business is. You get out there, you gotta work with people, you gotta be in situations you might not be comfortable with or well trained, but you get out there, you do your best.

Prachi Patel: That includes playing well, fixing the robots, and scouting other teams to see which ones you'd want to make alliances with for the final day.

Corey Chitwood: This match looks like it's gonna be a pretty good win—we'll be able to show our firepower real good. The next match is going to be hairy, though—1732 has some pretty good offensive power behind them, and they're pretty ridiculous with switching the defense on the fly and just tearing up people, so…

Mentor: All right guys, we gotta focus.

Prachi Patel: After a full day of matches, team 148 met to pick their top alliance choices.

Prachi Patel: Then, time to rest for the big day—elimination rounds and finals.

Prachi Patel: A few matches later, the Robowranglers hadn't made it to the top eight. But that didn't mean they were out of the finals. The No. 3 team chose them for their alliance.

Announcer: Team 148 from Greenville, Texas, the Robowranglers!

Student: Yes, we're very happy. We're very happy. It's gonna be…we're gonna have a good run…yup, very happy.

Student: But, I mean, we're a very strong alliance, so I don't think we're gonna be doing anything that's gonna mess up. So if we lose, it's because I think the other team's better, so…

Announcer: And the third member of this red alliance, they're the defending world champions. They're trying to do it again. It's Team 148.

Announcer: From Greenville, Texas, the Robowranglers.

Announcer: But if they're gonna do that, they're gonna have to defeat these three teams over here. And I can tell you, that's not gonna be easy…

Prachi Patel: Well, it wasn't. Team 148's alliance was out after the second round. But the FIRST Robotics Championship isn't just about winning, as Steve Maxwell, a professional engineer and team mentor, put it.

Steve Maxwell: Just the camaraderie of the team, the team spirit and everything. And when of course everything's going good, everyone's all, you know, cheering and carrying on, but even when it goes bad, you know still everyone's supporting themselves and supporting each other and…so it's really neat seeing the FIRST robotics get kids excited and get them back into engineering and helping others.

Prachi Patel: And well, there's always next year. I'm Prachi Patel.

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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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