China’s High-Stakes Robot Wars
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China’s High-Stakes Robot Wars


Here’s how Shenzhen works.
You put up a “damn things are going well here” skyscraper.
And then you put up another one right next to it, because you can.
And then to really drive the point home, you do all of this next to a metallurgic marvel of a stadium.
We’re talking about a boom town the likes of which the world has never seen before.
And things are just getting started.
Because inside the big stadium is the real action.
It’s a scene of smarts, creativity and hustle being collectively mainlined.
It doesn’t look pretty.
It doesn’t smell great.
It might even be inhumane.
But all of this is aimed at making China the dominant technology force of the future.
And Silicon Valley should be very, very afraid.
Welcome, friends, to RoboMasters.
This is a robotics competition that draws in hundreds of engineering students from around the world.
As you’ll soon see, I don’t really understand the intricacies of the game.
But the gist is that you build some robots, choosing from six different types,
like the Engineer, which heals other bots, or the Hero, which does extra damage.
Then you put them in a stadium and have them fire plastic bullets at each other to score points.
It’s fun for the whole family…
if your family is a bunch of insanely competitive gearheads.
For contestants, this can be an intense experience.
What’s your life been like for the last week?
The average sleep time is like 3 or 4 hours.
How do you do it every day and keep doing that for weeks? It’s crazy.
Drinking Red Bull.
Once these kids arrive for the competition,
they basically don’t leave the stadium for two weeks.
And fighting robot battle after robot battle takes its toll.
When was the last time you had something to eat?
Yesterday.
So you haven’t eaten today?
But it’s all worth it. Because the reward, if you’re lucky,
is a job at DJI,
the sponsors of the competition and the world’s top maker of drones.
If you’re a talented young roboticist, coming here to Shenzhen to work at DJI is the dream.
So the stakes are high.
How are you doing? Are you guys winning?
I hope so.
There are plenty of Chinese tech companies that produce nothing but cheap knockoffs.
DJI is not one of them.
The company was started in 2006 by a college student named Frank Wang.
He made components for drone hobbyists, and then decided to go ahead and make a full-on drone empire.
I think the core value of DJI is
we’re always trying to innovate something new.
For example, when we created a drone, there were actually no flying camera.
We created this concept of flying camera.
That’s basically true.
DJI’s first runaway hit, the Phantom, brought camera drones to the masses for the first time in 2012.
Since then, they’ve made bigger drones,
smaller drones,
teeny tiny drones,
and some specialty ones, like this crop-dusting drone.
All its products have sold well.
Most of its major competitors have flown away in tears.
The company rakes in billions of dollars a year and has thousands of employees all over the world.
And now, they want to pay it forward.
Our founder, after DJI became a little bit successful –
Yeah, a little bit.
He started to think that it’s time to host his own robotics competition.
We want engineers to be recognized as superstars.
And this competition, we hope it becomes very popular
and the people end up being inspired by these engineers.
It’s not just the competition itself.
There’s also a RoboMasters documentary, a RoboMasters reality show, and even a RoboMasters anime.
With this media blitz, DJI hopes to foster a new generation
of innovative engineers, who can then join the drone empire and make it even stronger.
Or maybe start the next DJI.
In other words what we have here is less of a friendly little robot fest, and more of a plan for world domination.
Looks like it’s up to me to sabotage this thing.
Does that make me seem scarier?
Mm, a little bit.
I’ve managed to infiltrate this team from Zhejiang University.
This is almost too easy.
We’re going up against the University of Washington.
Chinese teams usually destroy American ones, but my incompetence should even up the odds.
You guys, don’t shoot me, OK?
I’m number 1.
I’m number 4.
Please welcome RoboMaster!
Oh, yeah!
Ahh, amazing!
Prepare your teams.
Let the robo-slaughter begin!
And what do I gotta do try to do? Where am I going after the game starts?
I need to go out now.
Don’t leave me!
Are we red or blue?
Are we winning? How come nobody’s talking?
Did we win? We won! I knew it.
I couldn’t really tell what was happening, was it close?
No.
No, so we kicked your ass?
Yeah, you guys smashed us.
Thank you, thank you, it was an honor playing with you guys. That was fun.
Thanks. Thank you.
I’m sorry America. I tried.
A few days later, I return to the stadium to witness the final round of competition.
It’s South China University of Technology vs. China’s Northeastern University.
The winners will take home tens of thousands of dollars,
the respect of their fellow nerds,
and most likely a job offer from DJI or another up-and-coming company.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the future drone makers of the PRC.
It’s an adrenaline pumping good time here in Shenzhen.
But the city’s tech revolution has a dark side as well.
Soon it could leave factory workers out in the cold,
and give rise to the most sophisticated surveillance state the world has ever seen.
They’ve got this got its facial recognition. It’s all in the system. They know where you are.
That’s scary.
We’ll plumb those depths next time on Hello World.
Thanks for watching. And if you want to see more Hello World, click on the link to subscribe.

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