Building better 'bots

At Baltimore Convention Center, student-built robots will be put through their paces

March 12, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

There's nothing even vaguely woolly about the 3-foot-long, 16-inch-high, blue-and-black contraption known as The Electric Sheep.

Though it scoots about on four wheels, it can "kick" a ball by ejecting a forceful blast of air. It can maneuver through a low tunnel and transform itself into a ramp on which other vehicles can climb. The machine can even "think" for itself for brief periods, with an on-board camera that orients toward one of four goals on the playing field.

The Sheep is amazingly cool, and it was designed, built and operated by 10 students at Baltimore's Digital Harbor High School. The robot, essentially a plywood platform on wheels, will go up against almost 50 other 'bots from the Mid-Atlantic region this weekend in the eighth annual FIRST Robotics regional competition at the Baltimore Convention Center.

(The robot's name is a nod to Philip K. Dick's classic sci-fi novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?")

"Every year, we learn more, and every year, our team gets stronger," says Jamaal Barnes, 18. "In 2008, the first year we entered, we were happy we could drive our robot around with a remote. Last year, we added a mechanism to pick up balls. This year, we added air power. Hopefully, it will be able to kick the ball through the goal."

More than 1,000 students from 10 states are expected to take part in the contest, which was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway personal transporter. The event is a round-robin of 2 1/2-minute games that are based, very loosely, on soccer - except that, unlike the robots, soccer players don't typically hoist themselves up vertical towers and hang there for the last 20 seconds of playing time.

Contest organizers think that team-building skills are as important, and as tricky, as robot-building, so the contest requires and rewards cooperation among schools.

The eight highest-scoring teams each select two other schools to be part of their "alliance." The three-school alliance that has the most points at the end of the competition advances to the national championships in April in Atlanta, along with the schools winning each of the three top individual awards given for engineering skill, for the best rookie effort, and for putting together an alliance that capitalizes on the strengths of their sister-schools.

"We're not just trying to teach students to build better robots," says Kevin Boone, one of two faculty mentors from Digital Harbor High School. "We're also trying to build better kids. It's refreshing to see students not just doing rote memorization, but actually taking a real-life problem and solving it and making it work. It gave me a perspective of how much these kids are capable of."

Team members have been meeting every day after school ever since Jan. 9, when this year's challenge - designing a ball-kicking robot - was announced.

"We spent more than a week just drawing the robot on paper," says Mike Yates, 17. "The designs in your head always are flawless. Then you actually try them out, and you realize there's no way they're going to work, and you have to start all over again."

Once the robot was designed, Chris Kay, 18, and Lougene Almojuela, 19, took the lead on building the machine. Jamaal Barnes and Brian Eggleston, 17, were in charge of writing code.

Lougene's younger sister, Marie Almojuela, 18, and Kelsie Hall, 17, are the official team boosters. They procured and passed out Electric Sheep buttons to drum up support for the inventors, and made sure the T-shirt design was something that team members would actually want to wear. And Yates?

He did everything.

"The robotics team is kind of like all I do," he says. "This is my life."

If you go
The eighth annual FIRST Robotics Chesapeake Regional Competition will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Saturday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St., Hall A. Admission: free. For information, go to www.chesapeakefirst.org.

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