SRR Team Bio: Terra Engineering
Terra Engineering is an organization created by Todd Mendenhall that has produced many successful entries in previous robotics competitions.
The Road to Robotics:
Mendenhall's interest in robotics was not hereditary. "Nobody in my family does any form of engineering whatsoever," he said. In fact, he was not exposed to anything in that vein until he was older. Professionally, he became a mechanical engineer working in aerospace and didn't discover robotics until later.
The Comedy Central TV show "Battlebots" was an impetus, and after watching it he realized he had ability and interest.
"For me, getting hands-on is really important," he said. He went on to compete and excel on "Battlebots," as well as other robotic combat shows "Robotica" and "Robot Wars."
Entering Centennial Challenges:
In Mendenhall's experience with competitions, he said he has learned that there will always be a larger, more heavily funded competitor than you. "You're taking a chance," he said. The seasoned competitor has reason to be hopeful, however, as his team took home the second-place prize of $150,000 in the 2009 Regolith Excavation challenge.
Between his experience with that competition and his work in other contests, he has stockpiled a lot of background knowledge. "I get to yank chunks of things that we've already done," he said.
Mendenhall admits that the time and resources needed for this challenge have been tough to find. "I take whatever little help I can get here and there," he said. He is approaching the contest with the best offering he can create inside the time constraints, and hopes that if no one takes home the prize, he will have a chance to improve his entry and compete again in a second running.
"Many of these are just really smart people and mom and pop shops that are interested in this, and it's going to take them time to come up to speed," he said.
Dividing the Workload:
The team consists mainly of Mendenall, teammate Christopher Gudea and a handful of helpers who donate whatever time they can afford. "Chris is in school, so he comes whenever he can and does whatever he can. And I do everything else," Mendenhall said.
"Our goal this year is to complete Level 1. We don't want be a twitcher," he said, referring to those moments when the "on" switch is flipped and the robot just sort of spasms but doesn't perform. Nor does he want to be a "gravestone slab," where you turn it on and nothing at all happens. "Or slightly more entertaining, the (self-explanatory) smoke bomb," he adds. "We want to move one level at a time."
Looking Toward the Competition:
As the date nears, Mendenhall said he is devoting roughly 16 hours a day to the project. "The next three weeks, I'll be working on it full time,” he said. "I got dispensation from the boss -- my wife -- to work on it."
If I Had a Million Dollars …:
Mendenhall said he would like to buy a shop space to give him and his team room to work on projects like this.