Team Robotics • Michael Prochaska
Robotics Team channels Jobs, prepares to take a byte out of the competition
When Steve Jobs died last fall, magazines like Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone were digging deep into his past to chronicle the birth of Apple. His story became one that embodied the American Dream and revolutionized the established corporate nature of Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t easy. The formula for Jobs’ successes boil down to him and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak running on pure inspiration with little money and even less resources, using a basement as their headquarters.
It seems Jobs’ passion for innovation prevails through Morgan County High School’s Robotics Team.
These kids crank out code and speak in a lexicon full of “bytes, crawlers, dribbleware, sockets, zips and kernels.” While the rest of the world discusses social media and e-commerce, these students are theorizing capabilities of quantum computing, which is the study of storing electronic memory on atoms, according to student Ashurst Walker.
They work diligently in a deserted classroom down a side hall of the high school that is now cluttered with metallic gadgets and widgets of all sizes. Several students type tirelessly on two computers that rest in a corner behind a cart of mechanical parts. It’s not hard to picture the two Steves slaving away at their high-tech magnum opus.
They’ve even mirrored the same principles of making more with less, as Jobs once did.
“If we had suddenly $10,000 more to spend on it this year, I don’t know if we’d be able to make a significantly better robot than we would with the money we do,” said Mitcham Tuell, who’s working on the software for the robot. “Some teams have professional engineers working on it, and they spend a ton of money buying nice parts; it’s not really in the spirit of the competition.”
The competition is called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and school teams are given a kit of parts and six weeks to create a custom designed robot that competes in a sports game. Last year the team concentrated on building a robot with a mechanical arm that could reach the ceiling, and although that would be a good strategy for this year’s basketball themed “Rebound Rumble,” the students are thinking outside the box. In order to make the robot get a basketball in a hoop, they are designing a ramp that would stay at an angle but could move up and down to get the ball into different heights of hoops.
“We’ll just roll the basketball directly into them rather than shoot from a distance,” Tuell said. “We just figured it was more practical that way.”
Just because the team has found a loophole to traditional basketball rules, they are not off the hook when it comes to hard work.
One of the hardest parts of the job is writing the code and then transferring the software to the cRIO, which is the brain of the robot, Tuell said.
“We have to program the entire robot,” Tuell said, pointing to a pile of wires and devices. For power, the team is using a small car battery. They have hooked it to a controller that will not just turn the power on and off like a light switch but could give the robot juice on a variety of levels.
Tuell explained how the machine reacts to these controls. “It's going to turn by itself until these light sensors on the front detect the basketball hoop [the ball] is supposed to be going through, and then it's just going to move forward until this rangefinder we'll put on it tells it that it’s the right distance away from the hoop. It's then going to stop and drop the basketball in the hoop."
Though certainly high-tech and cutting-edge, their creation lacks the affableness of “Rosie the Robot” or the menacing presence of the “Terminator.” The students describe its exterior simply as “box-like” and its personality non-existent, but for good reason. FIRST teaches skills that far exceed the imagination of science-fiction.
“These are critical science and business skills, and it’s helping our school enhance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum,” said team sponsor and environmental science and physics teacher Maryann Dartnell. “I enjoy and get satisfaction out of seeing kids that are being creative and are learning skills that are going to carry them into adulthood.”
Tuell, who seems like an expert in computing, admitted to not knowing a lot about electronics and software until he began working with the team last year. “As far as the software team is concerned, it’s our favorite part,” he said. “Even if you don’t make a career out of science and technology, it’s useful to know what’s happening when you turn on a computer.”
Ben Thurston, who is also working on the programming side, said he has plans on majoring in computer programming in college. Other students learned how to use Adobe Dreamweaver, a Web design program, to develop a Web site.
With a total of 21 students, teammates are assigned different duties. Some are placed in a strategy team, software team, mechanical, communications, electrical and financial team.
Emily Shannon, who is on the financial team, said they made a big step by creating a real bank account this year.
With a six-week deadline, these students are all deeply involved, and time is just as valuable as money. They meet Monday through Thursday for at least an hour and a half after school and often spend 12 hours working over the weekend.
The project cost a total of $13,000, Dartnell said. Though the robot can be as pricy as a car, the school is lucky enough to receive a lot of funding from sponsors such as NASA, J.C. Penney, 4-H and parents and mentors. Dartnell said she would love to have more adults in the community involved in volunteering their time with the team next year.
With less than a week left before a scrimmage and the competition a month away (they are required to leave the robot untouched between these events), the robot is shaping up to look more like a product of solid, professional engineering. Built from pieces of pistons and computer parts once scattered across the room, it now outperforms last year’s robot, which stands proudly naked in a corner as a reminder of a previous triumph. Dartnell has no doubt this year’s machine will be a greater triumph. And the intelligence involved in assembling it is far from artificial; it’s amazing what they can accomplish, Dartnell said.
Steve Jobs’ legacy lives on.
Printed in the February 16, 2012 edition.