Being from Texas, I consider myself well-acquainted with the concept of the rodeo, in all its variations. I have seen bull riding as well as the dark art of mutton busting, in which children between five and seven years old attempt to cling to the back of a sprinting sheep for at least eight seconds. I am even familiar with the most ridiculous version of this North American pastime: goat-wrangling monkeys dressed in chaps sitting astride dogs. I thought I had seen it all. At least, that is, until I received an invitation to attend the inaugural Unmanned Systems Rodeo in Abu Dhabi.
This turned out not, as I had hoped, to be the emirate's attempt to build on its past innovations in camel racing technology by putting robots on the backs of bulls.
Rather, the rodeo was a competition to build a rudimentary unmanned aerial vehicle (colloquially known as a "drone"). According to the press release promoting the event, 11 teams from various campuses of the Higher Colleges of Technology would design, build and fly their own DIY-drone through a series of speed and endurance challenges. Drones, of course, are the flying machines currently making regular sorties over the tribal areas of Pakistan. Their reputation precedes them.
The notion that college students could build their own drone certainly raised my interest. Perhaps the lead sponsor of the event, the US arms manufacturing giant Northrop Grumman, was looking to stretch those R&D dollars with a little unpaid work from a group of keen college students. Would the next great leap forward be fashioned on the sandy fields of the vacant lot adjoining the Abu Dhabi CERT campus? Erm, no.
The reality - each drone was constructed entirely out of polystyrene and balsa wood - more closely resembled the type of remote-controlled aircraft you might purchase in a model shop, rather than a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which is the current weapon of choice for the US military.
That is not to say the rodeo was dull. As the event MC said after the third drone disintegrated in mid-air and plummeted to the ground: "A combination of high winds and low structural integrity leads to an exciting race."
The teams were given identical kits to work with, so small design tweaks offered the only means of gaining any kind of technical advantage over the competition.
Some, such as the drone developed by the eventual rodeo champions, the Robotics team from Dubai Men's College, performed admirably. In fact, it blew the competition away with a craft that stayed aloft for 21 minutes in the endurance test.
Others, such as Sigma-6, from Abu Dhabi Women's College, fared less well. The Sigma-6's first flight lasted 21 seconds before it crashed into the sand.
Hours later, a rebuilt Sigma-6 adorned with pink flowers (easily the best decorated aircraft on display) was ready to take flight again. It managed 30 seconds in the great blue yonder the second time out, before the framework holding it together gave way once more and the craft snapped in half.
The five members of the team could at least console themselves with the knowledge that they had won the oral presentation segment of the day's events. They could certainly talk a good game.
There was some high drama later on, when the Robotics team flew their drone into a pylon, sending bits of wire and delicate electronics scuttling in all directions.
"We have to put them back in the same place like the first flight," said Yaqoub Yousef, a 21-year-old mechatronics engineering student from Dubai Men's College. "We have to be careful", he added, although it appeared that no one on the team was quite sure why their drone had been so able to fly in the first place.
Four laps after rejoining the race, calamity struck once more and their drone bucked under the pressure of a sudden gust of wind.
Meanwhile, the MC tried to harness the attention of the crowd: "It looks like the wind is picking up, which makes it more exciting."
Perseverance, if not perfection, was certainly on display here, which was, of course, the real lesson the organisers were trying to teach this eager group of engineering students.
Adasi, a local drone manufacturing outfit, and Northrop Grumman, the creator of the B2 bomber, hoped the event would inspire young Emiratis.
"I'm confident that the enthusiasm we saw at this year's competition will inspire its expansion and will further encourage tomorrow's generation of Emirati scientists and engineers to develop similar groundbreaking technologies for the future," said Wes Bush, the CEO and president of Northrop Grumman during the awards ceremony.
Adasi's chief executive, Ali al Yafei, believed that "this [rodeo] has made a significant contribution to advancing the art and science of autonomous systems technology here in the UAE".
The winners will travel to the US to attend a conference hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which, according to its website, is "a non-profit organisation devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems community".
The runners-up will go to Sweden to visit a Saab factory. Personally, the latter trip sounds more interesting, but one hopes that the team won't pay too close attention to how this European conglomerate does business. Their famous car making division has been on the verge of collapse for years. Indeed, this month the company had to seek a loan of $215m (Dh790m) from China's Hawtai Motor Group to stay afloat.