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Robots to the Rescue

When It Comes to Teaching Technology, We're a Nation of Losers. But Follow These Young Southern Californians as They Learn to Engineer Their Own Education.

July 25, 1999|MIKE CLARY | Mike Clary is a Times staff writer who last wrote about the Disney Institute for the magazine

The brothers Unruh and the Beach 'Bot II crew are ready to rumble. In early rounds, their robot prevailed in electrifying matches against teams of pole-grabbers, platform-sitters and floppy flippers, some sponsored by big corporations with even bigger reputations. Better yet, these 14 underfunded students from Hope Chapel Academy in Hermosa Beach laid a gear-grinding whuppin' on their Southern California rival, Hawthorne High.

Now, heading into middle rounds, the confidence of team No. 330--motto: "B2 Beats U!"--is rising as fast as the Orlando temperature. True, a faulty circuit in the remote control panel had sparked anxiety earlier, but back in the pit, one of the team's engineer-dads had quickly replaced the balky unit with a spare, and now the four-wheeled robot is running like the well-oiled machine it is, and the techno-teens seem on track to their goal: an upset victory in the fifth national robotics championship at Disney's Epcot.

The three-day gathering of 207 robots, more than 10,000 students, parents and teachers from across the country and some of America's most prominent corporate executives and engineers began in April, just three days after a pair of disaffected Colorado high-schoolers killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves in a spasm of mindless violence. This annual festival of inventiveness and enthusiasm was not designed as an antidote to the Columbine High School tragedy. But it is.

"We'll be a contender," predicts Michael Unruh, 17, who, with his 15-year-old brother, Nicholas, operates the Hope Chapel robot's dual remote controls with a deftness honed during thousands of hours playing Nintendo.

In its rookie appearance here last year, the team from the private Pentecostal Hope Chapel Academy finished mid-pack. This year it won the Southern California regional tournament with its battery-powered warrior and finished fourth in the West Coast regional in Moffett Field, Calif. Michael Unruh explains the turnaround: "Last year, we built the best robot we could. This year we built a robot that does what we want it to do."


Just what the robots are supposed to do in their two-minute matches is determined each year by engineers at the nonprofit organization "FIRST" (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). If FIRST didn't concoct new games for each competition, the crack engineers who volunteer their time and talent and the major corporations that employ them would soon be building robots that make R2-D2 look like a slow-witted slacker. So the game changes, to assure that the robots do, too.

The rules of this year's game and the robot kits themselves were released in early January, just six weeks before the first qualifying competitions, which are open to any team of high school students in the United States. But the true competitors don't wait for express shipping. Hope Chapel leader Roger Harmon, 60, who retired after 32 years of testing satellites for TRW in Redondo Beach, and Chris Husmann, a Northrop Grumman engineer whose son is a member of the team, battled an East Cost snowstorm, four plane cancellations and the fatigue of a 3 a.m. arrival at the small airport in Manchester, N.H., to hear the rules of this year's contest. Versed, they gathered up two boxes of robot parts and flew home the next morning. That evening, they had their first design meeting in the school's "Robo Room."

The $4,000 robot kits are hardware surprise packages of various motors, valves, pneumatic cylinders and sensors, all theoretically capable of being powered by the enclosed 12-volt battery and operated through a programmable control system directed by digital radio signals. This year's contest is called "Double Trouble." Through a random draw, teams are paired off to compete against other duos in an intricate point-scoring contest that requires each robot to gather "floppies"--inner-tube-size pillows with Velcro centers--in a basket, climb onto a 4-inch-high platform and then lift the floppies to a height of 8 feet.

Long before the robot components arrived, the Hope Chapel kids and about a dozen engineers and advisors gathered in design groups, some responsible for locomotion, some for the electrical controls, others working on lift hydraulics. The kids took part in all the discussions and planning and also handled public relations, scheduling, sponsorship. Early in the design process, one ambitious engineer pitched a revolutionary plan in which the robot would, like a monster tarantula, extend several arms to envelop the entire platform and keep any competitors from getting close. But that proved impractical. Instead, the engineers came up with a unique drive system that propels each wheel separately, giving the robot swift maneuverability and the power to climb onto the platform with near-humanoid agility.

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