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Sky Ball XI Wraps Up Eventful Week at UTARI

PR2 pouring wine.
Researchers Matt Middleton and Cody Lundberg look on as the PR2 pours wine for Skyball guests.

Not many robots have the distinction of experiencing “15 minutes of fame,” but PR2, UTARI’s robotics platform that is used for assistive technology research, had more than his 15 minutes last Saturday night. PR2 entertained nearly 3,000 people at American Airlines’ Sky Ball XI, an annual fundraising event that honors our nation’s military service members, veterans, and their families. After serving as an interim waiter by pouring wine for Sky Ball guests, PR2 capped off his appearance by singing cadence for the crowd and introducing one of his contemporaries at UTARI – Zeno, a humanoid robot that helps diagnose and treat children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

While the audience seemed to want PR2 to continue his pouring duties, there was one final task on PR2’s agenda for the evening: introducing his boss. With a brief intro and salute, he turned the stage over to one of the evening’s featured speakers, UTARI Executive Director Rick Lynch, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army (Retired). 

“Our researchers ensured that PR2 and Zeno were ready for a full night of work at Sky Ball,” said Gen. Lynch. “It took a good amount of preparation, but hopefully it gives people an idea of the capabilities of assistive technology.”

The Sky Ball event, which culminated with an impressive fireworks show, was the last stop on an event-filled weekend for UTARI. Researchers, staff and students from the Research Institute had spent the days leading up to Sky Ball reaching out to students across the Dallas-Fort Worth area about opportunities for internships, student robotics competitions, and UTARI’s research efforts in the areas of advanced manufacturing, biomedical technologies, and robotics.

Zeno attends STEM spotlight event

Zeno and students

Zeno kicked things off with a visit to Cannon Elementary School in Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District. The school hosted an event to highlight its new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative featuring presentations by Col. Tim Raynor, U.S. Marine Corps and American Airlines pilot, Country recording artist Phil Vandel and Medal of Honor Recipient Bruce Crandall. More than 70 fifth-graders with an interest in robotics attended a demonstration of Zeno by UTA student researchers Joe Sanford and Abhishek Thakurdesai, who discussed robotics with the STEM students and showed them how Zeno interacts with humans.

“We talked about the design process, how we first imagined Zeno and then how we take that and move forward in the future and how that is helping our research,” said Sanford. “A lot of kids don’t realize what being an engineer is until they’ve already graduated from college and start working with engineers. They don’t know what engineers can do or how the different aspects of engineering can all work together.”

Students outreach at Career Expo

Aviation Expo

The student outreach continued at the Aviation & Transportation Career Expo at the C.R. Smith Museum. The 10th annual event welcomed more than 2,500 K-12 students, many of whom visited UTARI booths that featured the work of the student robotic competition teams. The teams, made up of UTA students, compete at a national and international level in the areas of Intelligent Ground Vehicles, Unmanned Air Systems, “RoboBoats,” Microbots, and a NASA-sponsored Robo-Ops competition. With their robotic creations at the UTARI booths, team members discussed the development and competition process with students from schools throughout DFW.

“Getting students excited about engineering and advanced technology is what it’s all about,” Gen. Lynch said. “UTARI is committed to students from grade school through grad school. It’s our part of investing in the future.”

For more information on Sky Ball, visit: