UW robot featured in sci-fi thriller 'Ender's Game'

SEATTLE - Sometimes movie magic can't replace the real thing. Such was the case with a University of Washington robot called Raven and the new movie "Ender's Game."

The science fiction thriller stars Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield and is based on a 1980s novel by Orson Scott.

The film's producers were in need of a futuristic robot that would perform surgery on the hero's rival in a key scene. Flashback to Spring of 2012 when the phone rang in the offices of the University of Washington BioRobotic Laboratory.

The film's prop master had heard and seen pictures of Raven II, a second generation robot designed by researches to explore new technology in the field of robotic surgery.

"Some guy from Hollywood called us and I said that sounds great," said UW Doctoral Student Hawkeye King. "When I asked what movie and he said Ender's Game, I'm like I'm totally going to do it."

King is a huge fan of Ender's Game and remembers reading the iconic book as a kid.

"When word got around the lab, everyone's jaw dropped," he said.

A month later, King and fellow bioengineering doctoral student Lee White packed up the robot and flew to New Orleans where filming was taking place.

"We found out that it was cheaper for the producers to fly the robot and us to New Orleans than for them to create a futuristic looking robot by computer animation," King said.

It's a testament to how futuristic Raven II looks and operates in person, especially with a little Hollywood make up and set building.

On a long 14-hour day of shooting at a NASA facility, King and White had some nerve racking moments when it came to close ups.

"We were sweating bullets; we were really focused," King said. "No blinking, no twitching because every little move is immediately broadcast to the robot."

King says the scene went off without a hitch and the hundreds of people involved in the scene, including Harrison Ford, didn't have to wait for Raven and it performed flawlessly.

Raven was first developed 10 years ago after the U.S. Army showed interest in technology for its remote medic units. The second generation Raven, which was used in the movie, was built through a National Science Foundation grant along with researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Fifteen Ravens are in use around the world. If one were bought new, the cost would be $289,000.