Doing the Robot
Carmel High builds a sophisticated machine designed to compete against the rest of the country.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
It’s not easy to build a robot from a pile of motors, wires, wheels, and chunks of aluminum – much less one quick enough to devour 11 feet of track per second and smart enough to move about on its own. It’s even more difficult to build one that can switch over to wireless remote control mode and hurl 40-inch track balls over a bar as tall as Vince Vaughn. And it’s harder still to build one that can do these things better than dozens of robots built by rival designers.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what 22 Carmel High School students, most of which aren’t old enough to work a job without a permit, are attempting. They’re priming “Sparky” for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition next month, a contest founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the man who invented the Segway and the iBot.
The rules are a lot simpler than the robots they inspire. Teams are composed of around 20 high school students, a mentor (usually a teacher), and a few engineering professionals from a local company. Participation costs are covered by grants or fundraising; new rules are announced each year just before the competition, giving teams six weeks to build a robot that can perform the new tasks necessary to score points. This year, robots need to be able to pick up and carry the aforementioned 40-inch-diameter balls around a caged, square arena to collect points. Robots can knock balls away from each other, and bonus points are awarded to teams whose robots can hoist balls over a high bar on their way around the track. The more times your robot can get a ball around the circuit, the more points your team collects.
Team mentor and Carmel High School computer teacher Tom Clifford thinks “Sparky” is due for a strong showing come Thursday, March 13, when the team will travel to San Jose to compete against 48 other schools. “I think it’s pretty darn sophisticated,” he says. “It’s not near to its level, but it’s a closer parallel to the Mars Rover than it is to a remote control car.” Sparky actually resembles the Mars Rover, with its high tech processors, square base and the long, wicked metal arm that extends out from the thin upright body.
Last year’s robot, “Jimi” (as in Hendrix), nearly won the region for Carmel High but was defeated one game from qualifying for the world championship in Atlanta. Clifford thinks their competitive edge comes from practicality. “We built a really good robot,” he says. “We didn’t specialize; we tried to do everything.” This year, the Carmel team had already built Sparky, a similarly versatile robot, four weeks into the competition.
By setting a goal to finish the robot so quickly, the team left time to practice driving Sparky and work out any kinks. That production schedule required a lot of work in a short amount of time: Each Carmel High student put in 23 hours a week – including 17 hours weekly outside of school. In that same amount of time, each of these kids could have watched all 10 seasons of Friends episodes and had time left over.
The first step was to come up with a design. Next, they divided the work and split up into groups to work on wiring, basic assembly, and writing code for the bot’s computer. In the last part of the building phase – the part the team unanimously agreed is the hardest – they worked together to interface the hardware with the electronics through computer programming. Once students have written the code and programmed the robot, they can control it wirelessly with video game controllers. Then driving practice begins. All told, it’s a massive time commitment but, like his fellow students, junior Alex Covello doesn’t mind. “It’s totally worth it,” he says.
That commitment is not the only thing that sets the CHS team apart. Team members estimate that at least half the robots they compete against are built at a private company; Sparky is being constructed at the school’s shop. According Head Coach Paul McFarlin, the team is “a student-run project” with students doing upwards of 80 percent of the work; he contends other teams lean more heavily on their professional partners. “When it looks like it came out of an aircraft factory,” Clifford says, “you know it wasn’t built by kids.”
That student leadership carries over to the competition. “When you are on the field you can have three students and an adult down there, but we just send four kids,” McFarlin says. “We try to let the kids do as much as they can. They have ownership.”
They also have an unmistakable enthusiasm for engineering and technology, which was Dean Kamen’s motivation for founding the competition. Junior David Hudson says that the experience has made him want to go into robotics engineering and programming. Covello is looking into a career in robotic engineering or bioengineering – and looking forward to Sparky’s coming out party this week. “To be able to build something from scratch,” he says, “into something that works and can compete in a great competition is the best.”