SRR Team Bio: Wunderkammer Laboratory
Team leader Jim Rothrock said he wanted a name that sounded scientific, but also a little strange and old-fashioned. Inspiration doesn't get much stranger than a photograph of taxidermied kittens posed at a tea party, a weird token from the Victorian era's obsession with oddities. Rothrock chose the name after his wife stumbled upon the bizarre photo, once part of a wunderkammer collection.
Literally translated, the German term "wunderkammer" means "wonder room." The word was used to describe the popular -- and peculiar -- mid-16th century cabinets of curiosity where science and superstition united in eccentric collections. That took care of strange, so he added "laboratory" to give it a scientific feel and distinguish it from other businesses.
The Road to Robotics:
"I was into robotics ever since I was in elementary school," he said. He built a few old-school robots in his younger years and enjoyed the experience. In high school, he participated in MicroMouse builds, constructing autonomous robot mice that have to solve a gridded maze.
Professionally, he worked for nearly two decades in visual effects for the motion picture industry on films like "Tron: Legacy" and others. He began to realize he wanted to work on real creations, not simulated ones. "I'd rather make a real robot than make a computer-generated robot," he said.
Entering Centennial Challenges:
Rothrock found the challenge on a government website and decided to throw his hat into the ring. He already had had some parts in the works from previous robotics competitions, so this was a chance to improve and progress.
Rothrock has set out to do the best he can with the knowledge he has taught himself. He is an army of one, crediting his wife, Carrie, as support staff. One of his objectives has been to pick up the skills he was lacking to finish the project. "I had to learn machining and metalwork and electronics because I'm mostly a software person," he said.
Dividing the Workload:
He says he shied away from forming a team with additional members because of the huge time commitment required of the challenge -- more than a year for development -- and no guarantee of winning a monetary prize. He knew he could put himself through that, but didn't want to ask another person to make the sacrifice.
Being a one-man show, the division of labor is pretty straightforward: "I do everything," he said, laughing.
Learning how to do machining accurately has been a trial, he said. He does not have a have computer numerically controlled setup to work with, so he is doing a lot of the work manually. "It's just me, turning knobs on the milling machine," he said, which is more time-consuming and physically intensive. But the solo work has brought him a lot of personal pride, and Rothrock has picked up valuable skills he can take beyond Centennial Challenges. "My favorite part has been learning about Robot Operating System software," he said.
Looking Toward the Competition:
"I've got a lot of work to do," he said of the few weeks remaining. "I look forward to avoiding abject failure." He is also curious to see what approach the other teams take with this challenge, he said, "because there are a lot of different ways to do this."
If I Had a Million Dollars...:
If Rothrock walks away with the prize, he said paying off his mortgage would be a high priority, followed by developing a solid investment plan for the rest.