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Crash Forces Robotic Rebuild for Competition
03.13.13
 
Robotic competitors in FIRST Image above: Robots built by high school students compete against each other in the Orlando Regional portion of the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. This year's contest required machines that could throw discs accurately or climb a pyramid to earn points during matches. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin
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Bob Cabana, KSC director, talks with FIRST participants Image above: Robert Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, talks with members of the Motor Monkeys team taking part in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin
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Ed Mango, program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, talks with FIRST participants. Image above: Ed Mango, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, talks with students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition at the University of Central Florida Arena in Orlando. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin
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The FIRST pit area for garage work on the robots. Image above: More than 60 teams took part in this year's Orlando Regional portion of the FIRST Robotics Competition. The teams worked on their machines in the pit area at the University of Central Florida Arena in Orlando. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin
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The road to this year's FIRST robotics competition proved unusually rough for a pair of teams when their robots were severely damaged in a car accident on the way to the University of Central Florida arena.

The high school students and their engineering mentors spent overnight hours salvaging usable pieces and the working components of the broken machines. The groups that had taken months to build the originals, rebuilt the pieces into a pair of new robots.

"Some of the students and one of the mentors stayed up all night," said mentor Paul Remmel. "(They) cobbled together two robots out of those parts and built other parts we didn't have."

The squads, called Horsepower and Bionic Tigers, competed in all their scheduled matches, using the time between sessions to refine their rebuilt machines.

"None of them even thought, 'We're not going to be able to get it back together,'" said Paul Ranyek, a Team Horsepower mentor.

Students from other teams also joined in the effort to salvage the damaged robots.

"They had about a day to rebuild six weeks' worth of work," said Deanna D'Alessandro of the Bionic Bears. "We all came together and right now those two robots are working. It was a great sense of pride for everyone when we saw those two robots actually working."

The repaired robot teams were teamed up and made it to the quarterfinals.

As with all the teams, the robots had to do more than just function -- they had to be able to accurately fling Frisbees or climb up a steep pyramid, and be able to play a little defense against another robot trying to do the same thing.

Students faced many challenges, including devising machines that not only worked with a remote control, but on their own as well.

"There's a lot of angles and speeds you have to take into consideration, so it was a little more difficult," said Abby Hall, a Pink Team participant who also hosted the VIP luncheon during the event.

The students receive support from mentors, including some who work at NASA. Kennedy worked closely with The Pink Team, NASA's Launch Services Program advised the Bionic Tigers and NASA partnered with Horsepower in their development. Numerous engineering and technical companies worked with the teams, too.

Pink finished the competition in second place.

Inside the arena, the atmosphere took on the feel of a basketball game. Flag-carrying students ran around the floor to lead their squad onto the court, teams dressed in their colors, some spiked their hair and painted their faces before cheering loudly as their robots went head-to-head. The robots worked inside a 54-foot by 27-foot court for 2 minutes and 15 seconds. The match unfolded on video monitors around the arena hall and there was even a booth where an online show was recorded to showcase the competition.

FIRST is a privately funded competition that calls on high school teams to design and build machines that can accomplish complicated tasks. The research, design and construction are technical, but there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork. Students largely specialize in specific areas of development whether mechanical, electrical, software or control.

"It's really shown me this whole process of designing and building as a team," said Albert Halbing of The Pink Team, which finished second in the competition. "I've done science fair projects but that's a more individual process. Here, it's a team."

The team-building and leadership aspects of the event stood out to NASA leaders from nearby Kennedy Space Center who toured the event and the pit area before speaking to the students.

"When you go to engineering school you learn how to be an engineer, when you get into industry, everything is about team," said Ed Mango, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program which is based at Kennedy Space Center. "You're a piece of a bigger puzzle. That's really how we succeed is teamwork."

Mango, the keynote speaker for the event's luncheon, told his audience that exploration historically serves great civilizations well, allows them to prosper. It's up to each generation to make the discoveries that build on the success of earlier work.

"The talent in this room is unbelievable," Mango said. "You're going to make these vehicles better. Together, we're going to figure out how to make space accessible to the entire planet."

Bob Cabana, Kennedy's director and a veteran of four space shuttle missions, found himself signing autographs and posing for pictures with the students as he walked through the pit area where the students were fine-tuning their machines. Attending his fourth competition, Cabana told a luncheon that NASA's robotic explorers will continue to advance as the students move from school and university to employ their considerable knowledge in future missions.

"This is really something special, this is what NASA does," Cabana said. "If you look at where we're going as we explore into the future, what do we do first? We send robots as precursors. Many of the same skills you use in developing your robots are the same skills that go into the Mars Science Lab Curiosity, they're just a little more refined than what we're using on the floor today."

For the Orlando competition, which selected finalists that will compete in the national tournament later this year in St. Louis, more than 60 teams took part including squads from high schools in Brazil, Germany and the Dominican Republic.

"Every year when we come here we have a lot of good robots," said Daiane Rodrigues of The Brazil Trailblazers. "It's a good experience because you make your robot and you see how the other robots are different and you can learn how they do this, how the other teams think."

For the foreign teams, the event is a way to make friends and find out unusual things.

"At all the regionals we make team friends and we have a good relationship with them," Rodrigues said. "We can learn American culture."

Regardless of rankings at the end of the four-day event, the students came away smiling with pride.

D'Alessandro said, "They say it's the best real-life example of engineering that you can get and I agree with that."

 
 
Steven Siceloff,
Kennedy Space Center