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Dueling robots

Two teams of students are ready to send mechanical creations into national battle

Thursday, March 05, 1998

By LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In terms of appearance, the Mach I robot doesn't meet the great expectations of new-millennium Americans.

Members of The Pitt Crew, which includes students from several area high schools, work on their creation, Mach I. (Joyce Mendolson Post-Gazette)

It doesn't have the high-tech sophistication of Star Wars heroes C3PO or R2D2. And it lacks the understated simplicity of Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" or even the campy science-fiction flavor of Frankenstein.

Mach I is short on style and long on substance, a triumph of function over form put together by a team of young Pittsburghers with one primary objective: To beat the pants off rivals in the seventh annual FIRST Robotics Competition in Florida next month.

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a nonprofit foundation created in 1989 to generate greater interest among students in science, math and technology. This is the second year Pittsburgh folks will compete in the national contest, which will take place April 2-4 at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center.

The creators of Mach I, The Pitt Crew, are 16 people from the Technical Academy at Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Clairton and Tech-Link Program of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that links disabled students with careers in technology. Those groups sponsored the Steel Shadow team last year, which went down in the second round.

Allderdice High School is also fielding a team of about 30 members, The Steel Dragons.

Building a robot and traveling to compete isn't cheap. The Pitt Crew had a budget of $25,000 raised from Johnson & Johnson, primarily, and local funders. The Steel Dragons had nearly $34,000 to work with. That came primarily from a NASA grant to Carnegie Mellon University, which chose to sponsor Allderdice. Four local businesses chipped in, too.

Amy Fox, co-captain of The Pitt Crew and a junior at Duquesne High School, helped put the finishing touches on her team's robot in the gymnasium at the Department of Veterans Affairs complex in East Liberty. The work was done there because it's the site of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Lab. Pitt was The Pitt Crew's engineering sponsor this year and last year.

"The challenge is to be optimistic because there are a lot of other teams that had a lot more money," Amy said during a lunch break one Saturday.

"But I'm optimistic because" - she sighs in joy and relief - "it actually works!"

In competition, each robot must attempt to place nine rubber balls, each about 2 feet in diameter, inside an 8-foot-tall, hexagonal cylinder. But that's not as easy as it sounds, because two other robots will be trying to achieve the same objective while hindering other robots in a two-minute period. Each team has three members: a remote driver, someone else to operate the robot's arms with a remote control and a human player inside the play area who tries to help score.

It's kind of like a three-way basketball game with robots.

For the Allderdice team, design was the most difficult part in assembling their robot. Unlike The Pitt Crew, they made their robot so it could scoop up two balls at once. It was finished just hours before it had to be packaged and mailed to competition organizers, scuttling prospects of a scrimmage between The Steel Dragons and The Pitt Crew.

"We got it just under the wire," said teacher Joe Abraham. "We were praying."

Abraham said his team planned to attend regional competitions in New Brunswick, N.J., later this month, prior to attending national competition in Orlando.

The Pitt Crew won't be going because they couldn't afford the trip, said Ruth McBurney, coordinator of the Technical Academy.

Before beginning work on their robot in January, Pitt Crew members had to attend a 10-week class for 90 minutes a week at the Steel Center. They attended one of four classes: computer-aided drafting and design, electronics, machine shop, or fund-raising and publicity. McBurney and co-instructor John Bernard felt that would enhance their competitive edge.

In January, FIRST organizers distribute contest details, including a "problem" and a kit of parts to student teams. The teams have six weeks to organize marketing, public relations, fund-raising and management groups to compete for the award-winning solution. Robots, all under 4 feet tall, had to be constructed, tested and mailed out by last Friday.

Over time, the number of Pitt Crew members dwindled from about 25 to 16. Eight of this year's team members participated last year on the Steel Shadow team.

"I feel like this year we were a lot better prepared," said McBurney. "We knew what to expect. We were on schedule and on budget the whole time. We put together a superior machine."

"Our robot this year is much more robust," Bernard added. "We had more time to practice this year. Last year it wasn't ready until 10 minutes before we had to put it in the [mailing] box."

This year, the robot was finished three weeks before the shipping date. The crew spent the remaining time troubleshooting problem areas, such as a speed controller that burned out prematurely. University of Pittsburgh graduate students Andy Rentschler, Mike Dvorznak and Mark Baldwin were instrumental in coaching them in that process.

"We're really ahead of schedule from last year," remarked Dvorznak, 18, of West Mifflin, who was a team captain last year. "This is a great opportunity if you ever want to get hands-on, real-life" experience.

Dvorznak, who is studying electronics engineering at the Technical Academy, called the competition "a catapult to my future."

The FIRST Competition began in 1992 with 28 teams. There were 155 teams last year and 200 will compete this year. Founder Dean Kamen, an entrepreneur and inventor with more than 40 patents, hopes to see 1,000 teams vie next year.

"We see a world where science and technology are celebrated," he says, "where kids think science is cool and dream of becoming science and technology heroes."

The robot arena isn't the only place opposing teams will do battle. Patrick Baxter, a senior at Fox Chapel Area High School, filmed a video of the team to enter in a documentary competition for The Chairman's Award.

And Antony Beattie, 20, is entering a 30-second computer video animation contest open to college students that incorporates the robot's task. In his entry, a robot races down a track as music from the "Speed Racer" cartoon plays. The robot deposits a ball in a target area and the ball explodes in a burst of colors.

"It's good for resume purposes, and it's good for experience," Beattie said as he played the video on a color monitor. The Belgium native graduates in March from Art Institute of Pittsburgh with an associate's degree in computer animation and multimedia production.

"It's been challenging," said Beattie. "It's been a lot of work, but it's worth it."

Amy Fox said she's learned a lot during the project, especially "having to work around problems and personalities."

The best thing about the project was "probably the satisfaction of seeing something you put so much time into actually work," she said.

Compromise, teamwork, leadership and technical skills were essential, Dvorznak said.

"It's like brainstorming with any group of people where you do have conflict," he said. "If this was a one-person project, you wouldn't see this up in six weeks."

Portions of the national competition will be broadcast on ESPN2. Even if the Pitt Crew doesn't win or make it far enough to get on television, McBurney said she's pleased with the sense of pride among participants.

"We are winners because we made it this far," she said. "We're not going to embarrass ourselves. We're gonna go down there and do a great job."

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