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UW EE's Raven Robot Makes its Big Screen Debut in 'Ender's Game'

On the movie set with the UW’s Raven II
surgical robot. From left to right: Hawkeye King, director Gavin Hood, Harrison Ford, robotics expert Joanne Pransky and Lee White.
Credit: University of Washington

The Raven II robot of UW EE’s BioRobotics Lab has been in the spotlight on many occasions, from fulfilling an 11 year old’s wish experience through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, to becoming the first open-source platform for surgical robotics research for seven universities across the country. But Hollywood?

The surgical robot makes its big screen debut around the 58-minute mark in the movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card's novel, "Ender's Game," which hits theaters on November 1st. The all-star cast directed by Gavin Hood includes Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield (as Ender), Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis and Abigail Breslin.

The scene that shows the Raven II was filmed over a year ago at a New Orleans NASA facility that builds rockets. EE graduate student Hawkeye King and then-UW bioengineering doctoral student Lee White were the sole operators of the robot during filming. They also prepared its exterior to look less like a lab machine and helped decide how the robot would operate to make it look as realistic as possible. "We were really part of the creative process of getting the robot on the set," said King.

King and White sat just off-set behind a curtain where they used several computer monitors and controllers to move the robot's four arms. The robot simulated opening the character Bonzo Madrid's skull for brain surgery which was injured in a fight with Ender Wiggin at the battle school. The scene deviates from the book's plot, King said, and nearly all of the main characters are present.

Though the robot's screen time is brief, the students spent more than 14 hours maneuvering the robot for the scene. "Everything had to be working perfectly from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the set," said King. During a close-up shot, the students maneuvered the robot's arms around and behind the actor's head. King devised an emergency "off" button (which was never used) for the actor to hold in case of a close call. "At the end of the day, I asked the props director how we did," King recalls with a laugh. "He said, 'Let me put it this way, if they didn't like it, it wouldn't get a close-up.'"

After a week hanging out with the movie's props team, exploring New Orleans and even joking around with Harrison Ford, the UW students returned to campus, where they had to stay tight-lipped about their robot's stardom the movie's release date.

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