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Publication Date: Friday, May 18, 2001

Operation Robot Operation Robot (May 18, 2001)

Foothill, Amador students get in gear for robotic competitions

by Stephanie Ericson

The indoor arena was noisy and crowded, and the spectators enthusiastic. The smell of perspiration in the hot close air made it feel like a sporting event. But for the competing students, the real sweat - mostly mental - had come earlier.

It was the Silicon Valley Regional FIRST Robotics 2001 competition at San Jose State University Event Center in late March, and the Foothill High School Robotics team was testing its engineering mettle against 51 other high school teams.

Throughout the two-day contest, the high schools were matched up and re-matched in different combinations of four teams, to test how well they worked with each other and the diversity of their robot designs.

In each contest, four teams lined up their robots at one end of the field. The human players, standing behind a shield, drove the robots by remote control to perform a series of tasks before parking in the end zone, all within minutes.

And while the Foothill club was competing in San Jose, some Amador Valley High School students were beginning to assemble a very different kind of robot. Their computer-programmed submarine, called the Manta Ray, will compete this summer against a handful of university student robotic teams.

Although the scope and approach of the two Pleasanton clubs contrast sharply, they both represent a surge of student interest and expanded opportunities in the robotics field.

Most notably, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) has grown from 28 teams 10 years ago to more than 500 this year at its national competition at the EPCOT Center in Florida. Countless more participated at regional tournaments, including the one in San Jose. Foothill entered both the regional and the national contests.

Foothill's creation this year was Rolling Blackout, a 5-foot, 120-pound robot that indeed rolls, as well as picks up balls, transports a large receptacle, and navigates over a teeter-totter bridge without tipping over - at least when all goes right.

"Right now our window motor came off the robot, and we have to figure out how to re-attach it," explained Foothill senior Megan Keegan as some of the team's 14 members worked on the motor that moves the robot's arms.

In a large room adjoining the arena stage and crammed with robots, they and other students tinkered with their mechanical creations. Or schmoozed, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the other teams - their competitors and also their collaborators.

"It the opposite of the 'Battlebots,'" said Foothill's chief engineering coach Neal Winblad, referring to the popular free-wheeling jousts that appear on TV, where remote-controlled vehicles battle mano-a-mano. "We cooperate to complete a task within a given time."

All teams receive a kit with some of the parts they'll need and the rules and specifications. In an intensive six-week period, the student teams and their engineer mentors spend long hours designing and then building the robots, and practicing how to use the remote controls.

"There's a huge variety of what teams could come up with," Winblad explained. "Some might want to specialize to do one area well, while others design something more versatile." During the competition, frequently a smaller, more maneuverable robot would pull a larger model that got stuck.

The Rolling Blackout, one of the more versatile models, didn't make it to the final matches. But the team received the Delphi "Driving Tomorrow's Technology Award" for its most innovative design feature - multidirectional wheels. These are essentially multiple sets of small wheels built onto the surface of each large wheel, which make the robot more maneuverable. The awarding judges also commended the team on its ability to explain how the wheels work, said Alison Shurtleff, a Foothill junior.

"We spent so much time working on the wheels," she said. "Engineers did more construction of motors. We can't wire, but we can build well."

Indeed, the collaboration between the four engineers and the students seemed to be at the core of the competition's educational aims.

"Last year there was great difficulty starting out because we knew nothing about engineering," said Shurtleff. "This year we were thinking about some ideas before we got the parts ... and we knew what the engineers were talking about this time."

For Shurtleff and most members, robotics was uncharted territory when they joined, but they quickly became dedicated participants.

"I think getting hands-on experience is so cool and I love the competition, too, because everybody gets pumped up for it," Shurtleff explained.

Keegan said she enjoyed the process from start to finish. "I really got into the whole aspect of it, especially the design ... and seeing how it takes form, and modifying things - the evolution of a robot."

A new challenge was added this year - animation - bringing into the group Phil Grasso, a junior with this expertise. Working with two other students, Grasso put together a 30-second promotional of Rolling Blackout.

In his third year of coaching the team, Winblad is enthusiastic and committed.

"I found it so fun and meaningful, that I've stayed with it," he said. His company, Transdyn Controls, is the lead sponsor for the team and the source of engineering coaches. Several other companies, including Clorox and Adept Technology, have chipped in funds, but Winblad would like to see greater corporate support for the team in coming years.

Entry fees for the regional and national competitions were $9,000 total; thousands more were needed for additional parts and travel expenses. Despite earnest fund-raising efforts by the team, it wasn't able to quite cover the year's expenses, a shortfall made up by some of the adults in the group.

At the national competition in early April, Foothill's robot didn't place very high, but everyone had a great time, Winblad said. "We didn't have enough time to practice driving it, but the robot worked almost flawlessly," he explained. "Next year the object will be to get a well-built robot done quickly and have time for kids to work on driving it, and they'll have this year's robot to practice on as well."

While robotics activities at Foothill have ended for the year, the Amador club is now gearing up, getting its automated submarine in shape for the fourth International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition 2001 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in July. There the members will challenge 12 university teams and one other high school team.

It will be their second time in the competition. Last year their 208-pound, 6-foot sub placed seventh out of 12 and garnered an honorable mention and a $500 prize. This year's model is slightly smaller and lighter.

"The Amador group really broke the ice by being the first high school team at the competition," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the AUVSI, the organization sponsoring the competition. "It caught everybody off-guard and their enthusiasm was very infectious."

Jim Bales, technical director of the competition, also praised the group's spirit and its technical accomplishments.

"Their vehicle impressed the judges with many of its technical details, and they were able to put it into the water and have it swim under its own power and control. Several university teams did not get that far!" he said. "We are delighted to have them back this year."

The technological challenge is daunting - designing and building a vehicle that could operate and navigate itself under water, processing visual and sound clues through a computer program to perform a series of tasks.

"It's computer controlled, not remote controlled," explained Amador junior Karl Shulze, the club's president and chief engineer.

Last year their sub, Hammerhead, after being placed in the water by Navy divers, had to locate and retrieve a beacon that emitted an acoustic ping and random flashes. This year the tasks are more complex. Their new sub, the Manta Ray, must recover the beacon plus find some boxes, drive over them, determine their depths, and select the shallowest one, then return to the divers with the information, all within 30 minutes.

Another difference is the team's approach. "This year everything is designed beforehand," said Schulz. "Last year we were thinking it through as we went."

The group is still raising funds to pay the way and to potentially improve the submarine. The team members hope to reach $20,000 but would be satisfied with adding $3,000 to the $12,000 they've already raised. In addition to monetary support from area companies and individuals, the club also values the free access to equipment provided by Amerimade Technology.

In contrast to the Foothill Robotics Club, Amador's six-member team operates fairly independently, with a minimal amount of outside technical help.

"These guys have been so self-directed that they take care of everything themselves," said teacher Bud Engel, one of the club's advisors. Also unlike the Foothill team, which did not require any specialized prior knowledge to participate, the all-male Amador team members brought with them a lot of the needed engineering and computer skills that they had already acquired.

"A lot of their technological learning comes from the parents," said Engel.

But with the heavy time commitment necessary for this complex engineering project, any current parental guidance is limited to occasional trouble shooting in some areas. Engineer Dieter Schulze, Karl's father, for example, can advise on electrical problems but is not involved in robotics.

"They're very good at calling up people and persisting until they get answers," commented Christine Schulz, Karl's mother. "I'm impressed with the drive all these boys have. It's not an easy process and very time consuming, (involving) not only technological knowledge, but fund-raising and team dynamics."

The club gives students an opportunity to work in new and advanced technology that schools can't otherwise provide, said Jerry Shelley, another team advisor, who helps with fund-raising and public relations.

"You take these kids with outstanding abilities in other areas than just the classroom and give them an opportunity to grow and use their talents in a competitive situation," he said.

But because the competition is so advanced, it leaves some students out, he said. Therefore, the club recently started a separate group that is building a vehicle for Battlebot competitions. "This section of the club has a simpler learning format and will springboard students to more advanced levels later," he explained.

Working on the submarine with Schulz is Chris LaFlash, whose focus is the computer drive, using a Linux operating system. Other team members include Chris Crutchfield, Nick Gurtler and, new to the group this year, Nick Rapp.

Also on the team is Daniel Bryant, a senior at Foothill last year, now attending UC Berkeley. Bryant is the team's software engineer, developing simulator imagery needed for real-time monitoring of the sub's activity. Simulation is also important to test how well the sub works in different environments, something the team did last month when the sub was launched on its maiden voyage in a backyard swimming pool. Two days later, the team was ready for the local media, despite some glitches in a few of the speed controllers for the sub's propellers.

Watching the team put the Manta Ray through its paces, one can't help but wonder how these high school students managed to accomplish such a sophisticated technological feat.

"A lot of learning from mistakes," said Schulz. To show the team's humbler beginnings, Schulz brought out their very first submarine project - a large, sealed and motorized Skippy peanut butter jar, its propeller operated by remote control.

"We learned so much from last year, seeing the different vehicles in action," said Schulz, of the competition, where many of the better-funded university teams sported sleeker, more compact subs. "We saw which parts worked and which did not and we got to talk to people."

For both Foothill and Amador students, their experiences in robotics have given them greater insights into engineering career opportunities and, to some extent, making connections with technology companies.

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