Robots command the day as Md. fair ends yearly run

High-tech event puts new spin on tradition

September 04, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Welcome to the 21st century, where ring toss, the old carnival game, has gone robotic.

Under a big white tent in a quiet corner of the state fairgrounds in Timonium, about 100 of the mid-Atlantic region's brightest teens gathered yesterday to show off the fruits of their ingenuity: a squadron of beach ball-balancing, teeter-totter-riding robots.

It was the first robotics competition in the 123-year history of the Maryland State Fair, the annual end-of-summer event that finished its 12-day run yesterday.

In most ways, the fair was a throwback to simpler times. Many sights and smells were the same as at the start of the 20th century, when the cotton candy machine was the brand-new marvel of the midway.

Booths sold corn dogs and candy apples, where the scent of burnt sugar mingled with mustard's tang. The lunchtime crowds lined up for burgers and fries, while a kiosk offering "fresh salads" and "great wraps" was all but deserted.

Parents and children stood in line for the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster and other familiar thrills. On an elegant old merry-go-round, a nervous toddler flung her arms around her father's neck. Older children giggled and shrieked through the haunted house, while the ticket-taker, hidden from sight, worked a lever that blasted them with cold air.

All the old-fashioned carnival games were there. But none of them drew a crowd to out-cheer, out-clap and out-shout the 11 teams of enthusiastic teen-age inventors at the robot games.

"Robotics! It's not just for dorks!" yelled Miles Murdaugh, 17, of William Penn High School in York, Pa., whose team's robot looked like a cross between the Eiffel Tower and an oil derrick on wheels.

Sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, the fairground competition was an exhibition match featuring some of the best teams from among more than 500 participating high schools in the United States, Canada and Brazil. The competition culminates each April in a national championship match at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla.

With up to $2,500 in prize money at stake for the winning team, it's a serious event. But the challenge is wacky enough to keep the young engineers grinning and scratching their heads at the same time.

They must design and build robots to glide across the floor, grab a tall-wheeled bin and haul it across to an 8-foot-high plastic wall. There, team members toss rubber balls over the wall and into the bin until it's full.

Working in tandem with another machine built and controlled by another team, the robot must cross the floor again and hoist an enormous beach ball into a second bin. Finally, the robot must balance bins on a teeter-totter.

All this in two minutes, and with bonus points for extra-difficult tricks along the way.

It isn't easy. Most of the robots malfunction, said Amy Pruett, 16, of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.

"It's not an exact science," she said. "They need lots of TLC."

The school is close to the Goddard Space Center, where Pruett volunteers as an engineering intern. The team prides itself on reliability.

"We always get done what we say we're going to do," said Kristin Kirk, 17.

After two days of competition, things were looking bleak for Roosevelt team members yesterday. Their robot was on the fritz because of a broken component most of Saturday, and they were last in the standings.

But Parkville High School's team lent them a crucial spare part, and Penn High, the competition's leader, picked Roosevelt as its partner in the final round.

"We kind of owed it to them," said Penn's Brendan Sheffer, 18, because the two teams had been paired earlier when the Penn robot was off its game. "Besides," he said, "they've got an awesome robot."

The pairing proved unstoppable. The teams from York and Greenbelt won by more than 100 points.

Steven Lewis, 17, of the fourth-place Governor's School in Richmond, Va., said his team was disappointed but not surprised.

His school's robot "is getting old and falling apart," Lewis said. "It's this year's robot, but it's built by a bunch of high school kids. What do you expect?"

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