03/02/11 — Inspired by nuts and bolts

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Inspired by nuts and bolts

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on March 2, 2011 1:46 PM

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Joshua Pickel, left, works on the arm of the 4-H robot while his dad, Aaron Pickel, center, one of the adult mentors, and team member Michael Spears look on. The robot has been entered into the USFIRST Robotics Competition, which will be held April 7 through 9 in Raleigh.

Michael Spears was helping perfect the arm of Karen the robot. As it raised up and down, it kept knocking into another part -- a major disappointment for the team of nine building the mechanical contraption.

Eventually, the kink was fixed and the team continued working to finish the robot.

But it was just one of the many disappointments members of the 4-H Robotics Club had to overcome before entering Karen into the USFIRST Robotics Competition, which will be held April 7 through 9 at Dorton Arena in Raleigh.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which holds the competition, was founded by inventor Dean Kamen and Professor Woodie Flowers in 1989 to develop ways to inspire students in the engineering and technology fields, and the robotics contest encourages high school students to become engineers by giving them a real world experience working with engineers to develop their own robot.

Competition is held regionally, state-wide and nationally.

Each team is challenged to build its own robot to compete against others.

"The whole opportunity is wonderful," said Ann Finch, adult volunteer with the 4-H Robotics Club. "The fact that these children are able to do this in a club setting is great."

This is the first year that the club has entered. The team -- Roto Raptors -- is sponsored by Wayne County 4-H and JCPenney.

Mrs. Finch said the youths are learning a lot about the design process and programming and even how to overcome problems, something they ran into a lot while building the robot.

"We had to come up with a design everybody thought would work, and it took longer than we expected," 17-year-old Michael said. "There were lots of people saying this or that won't work. So we were tweaking designs we hadn't even finalized, and were voting on a different design."

The team had only six weeks to complete the robot.

"When we first tackled the project, I thought it was quite a bit to do, but I knew we could do it," Michael said.

Team member Joshua Pickel said the hardest part was the prototyping.

"And there were quite a few things when we had it built that we had problems with," he said. "Like a part in the way of the arm that we had to fix."

The team used a special 3D engineering program to get ideas for the robot.

The robot was made in three separate pieces -- the base, the top and a bright red bumper.

The base has six wheels, two drive wheels in the middle and four omni wheels with casters that make it go from side to side, making turning easier. It also has gearboxes to reduce the robot's speed, which can be up to 20 miles an hour.

The top has one motor to raise the arm up and another to extend part of the arm out.

It also has a two-pronged gripper. The gripper is important because the object of the competition is to build a robot that will receive a game piece from one of the team members through a slot, take it across an arena to the other side and put the piece on a peg on the wall.

"We will try to get three pieces in a row for the maximum points," Michael said. "There will be other robots doing the same thing. After that, we have to deploy a mini robot from the main robot to climb a 9 1/2 foot pole to the top and come back down."

Although it sounds complicated, the Roto Raptors had a working knowledge of mechanics and honed their skills by reading up on robotics. They also got a lot of help from their adult mentors.

One of those was Aaron Pickel. He said the team's goal was to devise a space-confined robot that would be able to grab game pieces and put them on a peg, then climb a pole.

"They worked on the mechanical side putting it together and the programming side to be able to figure out how to wirelessly communicate with the robot."

For that part, they are using a small laptop with two joysticks that was part of a kit of electrical and mechanical parts provided by USFIRST.

"The robot didn't have to look a certain way," Pickel said. "It was their own design. Each kid sketched his own design and the team voted and chose this one."

He noted, though, that sometimes the technical part of the project was a bit outside their expertise, so he and the other adult mentors helped. "But we had them alongside to see what the thought process is that we go through to tackle a technical problem."

Joshua said the team worked on the robot a couple hours one day a week and all day each Saturday for the first four weeks, then began putting in five to eight hour-days every day the last couple of weeks.

And it was not all disappointments. In fact, there were many "yea" moments, 16-year-old Joshua said. Like every time the team finally got something to work.

"One night we had the base running and it just stopped," he said. "We spent half an hour trying to figure out what went wrong, and found out there was a small jumper that had melted, so we had to replace that."

He believes the Roto Raptors have a good chance of winning the compassion.

Other team members are Donal Wilhite, Christopher Finch, Austin Sohr, Gabrielle Benjamin, Jon Christian Benjamin, Chris Sherfey, Jacob Pawvluk, Joshua Spence, Chad Jackson and Sara Davis.

What will the Roto Raptors do with their robot after the competition?

"Play with it," Michael blurted out excitedly.

"We are also thinking about doing modifications to it just for a team project in the off season and maybe improve between seasons," Joshua added.