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NASA-Sponsored Robotics Teams Gear Up for 2012
Space cookies team working on robot Click image for full resolution.
Team 1868 is supported by NASA Ames Research Center.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Space cookies Click image for full resolution.
The girls from the space cookies take time to pose for a photo.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Team 254 - the cheesy poofs Click image for full resolution.
Members of team 254 work with their robot. Team 254, or the cheesy poofs, is also supported by NASA Ames Research Center.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center

The CalGames robot contests have begun! NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. is supporting two competitive high school robotics teams: Space Cookies Team 1868, and Cheesy Poofs Teams 252 and 254. All three teams recently won top ranking positions in the CalGames Western Region Robotics Forum (WRRF) at Archbishop Mitty High School, San Jose, Calif.

Each year, FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, challenges high school students to design, build, test and compete robots that can outperform their opponents. To help students compete, regional competitions are held to hone their skills for the national FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) that starts this year in January. In addition, NASA engineers and scientists are encouraged to share their expertise and experiences by mentoring teams in an engineering laboratory with machinery and tools at NASA Ames.

“We couldn’t be more proud of our teams and their commitment to ‘rise to the challenge’ and produce outstanding software and technology, building and operating robots each year,” said Mark Leon, manager of NASA Robotics Alliance Project at NASA Ames.

No matter which is the favorite robot at these competitions, the stands generally are filled full of cheering fans watching 120-pound robots swivel, scoop and travel speeds up to nearly 20 feet per second to score a point. The outcome of the multiple two- minute-15-second matches is dependent upon both robot and human performances. The first 15 seconds of the match are called the autonomous period, and robots perform independently, according to team-written software programs. The final two minutes are all about human performance with a driver, operator and human player. The driver maneuvers the robot right, left, forward and backwards; the operator moves the single-arm extension and hand-tool; and the human player interacts with the robot on the field, feeding it the ball, or throwing the ball on the field, etc. All players must coordinate and understand each others’ moves to score points.

This year at the WRRF, NASA Ames “house teams,” the Cheesy Poofs, which entered two robots 252 and 254, and Space Cookies’ 1868 robot, won first, second and third place, respectively. The Cheesy Poofs, which has 137 members, entered a prototype robot 252, named Slipstream, and a developmental robot 254, called Slipstream Too. Space Cookies, sponsored also by the Girl Scouts of Northern Calif., has 40 members and entered robot 1868, dubbed Mazarine, after the butterfly; the girls thought the robot’s arm, going up and down, was like a blue butterfly opening and closing its wings. Space Cookies is the only all-girl team in the competitions.

“Regional competitions are fun events that help teams gear up for the new season that starts in January,” said Ann Wettersten, the adult leader of the Space Cookies Team 1868. “Even though there is no cash award or scholarship, winning a CalGames competition is an honor.”

The Cheesy Poofs Team 254 was founded in 1998, when NASA engineers Bob Holmes and Steve Kyramarios joined Jason Morella, then an English teacher at Broadway High School, San Jose, Calif. to form a team that would excite high school students about robotics. In 2000, the program was given a new home at Bellarmine College Preparatory, also in San Jose, Calif. Last year, the Cheesy Poofs won the FIRST World Championship, outcompeting more than 300 of the top FIRST teams in the world. In addition to winning the championship, they were awarded the Industrial Design Award, which recognizes form and function in an efficiently designed machine that effectively achieves the game challenge.

“We credit the win to the endless hours of hard work and dedication put in by our students, coupled with the many helpful and generous mentors who donate their time to helping our team. Without them, none of this would be possible,” said Nagy Hakim, the president of Cheesy Poofs Team 254.

Space Cookies also was a top contender for their robot’s performance, but this wasn’t always true for them. The team was formed in 2005, and started competing in 2006 with only 12 girls. Although few in number, they won the Silicon Valley Regional Rookie All-Stars championship and the Championship’s Judge’s Award. Each year, the team continued to grow in membership, improve performance and receive greater recognition.

Today, the team has almost quadrupled in size, and has members from 12 high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. As team members, girls are given the opportunity to learn engineering design and fabrication; how to drive, scout, and work in the robot pits; and how to write a business plan, grant requests, and market a product.

“Any high school girl in the Bay Area is welcome to join the team. No experience is needed; we train as we go,” said Wettersten.

During the WRRF competition, the Cheesy Poofs won all of their matches, while the Space Cookies maintained and drove their robot to victory in seven out of eight matches. After each match, team members are expected to cart their 120-pound robots to the pits for a quick diagnosis, repair as needed, and then head to the next match. Space Cookies was able to quickly transport the robot to the team’s pit for fast repairs.

To be a winning contender, each team relies heavily on its pit crew of about ten members. Once a match is completed, a pit stop is made for robot repairs; crew members are expected to quickly and efficiently swap out the battery, grease the chains, check the connectors, fix the arm, and make other mechanical adjustments. If needed, they even test the electronics for failure.

“”Deep blue learning occurs in the pits,” said Leon. “Crew members have to perform fast and efficiently to first diagnose the problem, and then fix it.”

NASA plays a significant role in the robotics programs. Teams can be NASA mentored by one of the 12 NASA centers (category one), NASA sponsored (category two), or NASA supported, which gives teams access to NASA laboratories, machinery and tools.

Through the NASA Robotics Alliance Project, the agency provides grants to 297 teams and sponsors four regional student competitions, including a new FIRST regional competition in the South Florida Regional in Boca Raton, Florida. In addition, NASA sponsors FIRST Lego League (FLL) tournaments and helps coach the teams.

On Nov. 12, 2011, the fall FLL tournament will be sponsored by and held at NASA Ames. Teams need mentors in animation, mechanical, electrical and software development.

For more information about Western Region Robotics Forum, visit: http://www.wrrf.org

For more information about NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project, visit: http://robotics.nasa.gov

For more information about FIRST Robotics Competition, visit: http://www.usfirst.org/

Ruth Dasso Marlaire
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.