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Encountering a 305,000 pound robot in Vegas!

“Really, that’s what you noticed?!”  (comment of my husband after the show)

We happened into tickets to the phenomenal Cirque de Soleil show KÀ in Vegas.  The music, the story, the actors, the costumes were all extraordinary, but what caught my attention was the robot!  Performers fought, danced, leaped, climbed and fell from what appears as floating platforms.

Entertainment Engineers hired by the Cirque de Soleil designed a 300,000 pound free standing hydraulic gantry crane and a 3500 pound robotic arm in a spectacular combination of hydraulic cylinders, accumulators, and high output electro-hydraulic valves.  Six hundred and fifty gallons of vegetable oil (they choose to use the more environmentally friendly alternative to hydraulic fluid) are pumped out every minute to lift, turn, and incline the Sand/Cliff deck that holds and suspends the performers.

The automated computer system that moves the massive set during performances is a complementary software engineering feat. A digital sensor system reads the position of the sets. Stagehands precisely position reflector tubes and digital readers locate the reflectors as reference points to position the sets (even in the dark or in within thick clouds of smoke effects). A 5 mm misalignment kicks in safety features that freeze the set. The Cirque show’s larger backdrops, massive high-def video screens and acrobatic elements require a small army to move into position each night. Even then, the odds that a sea of stagehands could do the moving with any measure of speed or precision are slim. Computer automation is necessary to create the precision for the artists to repeat their spectacular performances night after night.

I know for some this is old news. The mechanized set was created by the McClaren Engineering Group from 2002-2004 for $19,000,000.  It was awarded the prestigious Thea Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association (this last year’s winner was the interactive wand experiences in Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida).  I wanted to share with those of you trying to inspire this generation of budding engineers and technologists.

An engineering (mechanical, software, electrical) degree can pave the way to work with these incredible opportunities.  If you have a child interested in the entertainment industry, encourage them in math and technology. The week long Find Your Passion Course that Grow a Generation offers gives high school students the opportunity to discover more details about career paths such as entertainment engineering and learn more about the amazing people working in the field.

The American Society for Mechanical Engineers recommends experience with big equipment as you pursue a mechanical engineering degree. Look on Cirque du Soleil’s career opportunities for information on jobs in automation, electrical, lighting, and technical equipment. Internships are available at their Las Vegas Division. Look on the McLaren Engineering careers opportunities to investigate the type of education and experience you need to apply to work for them.   Consider building something for your school or community theater production. Last year,  3rd -5th robotics research fellows built robotic legs for the Wicked Witch of the East in our school’s production of the Wizard of Oz. What can you build?

Find out more about the amazing robotic stage in Vegas!


And of course, go to the show!

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