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Readin’, ‘Ritin’ And Robots: Machine Learning And Robotics Competition Sparks Young Inventors

Henry Wolfson doesn’t ride horses, but that didn’t stop him from bringing Sleipnir the robot, named after an eight-legged steed from a Norse myth, to St. Louis, Missouri, last month.

Wolfson, who is 15 and goes to Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, built Sleipnir with his schoolmates to engage other fearsome robots in a medieval-like battle at FIRST Championship, a robotics contest created by the legendary inventor Dean Kamen. Sleipnir had to collect rubber boulders, maneuver past obstacles and fling the projectiles at the opposing team’s stronghold. The robot breached the castle’s wall by hitting it with the right amount of rocks. The robot could try to climb the wall for extra points. Out of 600 teams, Wolfson’s group finished eighth in its division. “I kind of felt like a rock star,” Wolfson says. “Coming together as a team for each match, fixing problems together and sharing a common goal was an incredible experience.”

Wolfson was one of more than 29,000 students from 43 countries who tested their engineering and robotics skills at FIRST Championship. Kamen started FIRST — meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — in 1995 to promote science and engineering education and innovation. The group held its inaugural FIRST Championship the same year and the program has grown every year since then.

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Top image: Competing robots had to collect rubber boulders, maneuver past obstacles and fling the projectiles at the opposing team’s stronghold. Above: Some 29,000 students from 43 countries tested their engineering and robotics skills at FIRST Championship. Images credit: FIRST Championship.

Wolfson and the 30 other members of team No. 1712 had learned just six weeks before the contest date what task their robot would have to accomplish. They built and perfected their robot every day after school and on Saturdays. Added up, Wolfson estimates it took them a total of 6,000 man-hours.

But FIRST is also getting kids interested in science. This year, 17-year-old Amanda Horne, who also competed in the event and studies at New York’s Albany Academies, received a Dean’s List Award nomination for mentoring elementary and middle school girls in robotics and other achievements. She was inspired by her own personal experience. Horne always liked math and science, but couldn’t figure out how to apply them to her life until she discovered robotics and taught herself to program robots in Java. This fall, she heads to Clarkson University to study software engineering.

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Teams had learned just six weeks before the contest date what task their robots would have to accomplish. Image credit: FIRST Championship

Parents catch the bug too. Steven Hartman, chief technology officer at GE Power Services, was in St. Louis with his 14-year old son Brody, who was also competing. “Here’s what struck me,” the engineer says. “Every team received similar parts but no two robots look alike. It’s unbelievable.” While teams were required to use the same base parts, they relied on their insights and resourcefulness to design additional components, often applying the latest technologies like 3-D printing and CAD modeling.

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Henry Wolfson with Sleipnir, his team’s robot. Image credit: Emily Wolfson

More than 120 of Hartman’s GE colleagues have dedicated thousands of hours every year since 1998 to mentor FIRST kids as young as 6 and as old as 18. They compete at four different levels of FIRST — from elementary school children constructing Lego structures to teenagers building sophisticated robots in the FIRST Robotics Competition, the most advanced of the contests. “When I see the teams at the FIRST Robotics Competition competing with each other, I think of those kids as being the next generation of researchers,” says Lynn DeRose, a principal investigator at GE Global Research. “They’ll be taking my place.”

The frenetic four-day event concluded with a crowd of more than 43,000 fans cheering on the final four teams in an atmosphere that Wolfson says was evocative of a major sporting event. “I am seriously considering going into one of the engineering fields, either mechanical or electrical engineering,” he says. “This is awesome.”

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The four-day event concluded with a crowd of more than 43,000 fans cheering on the final four teams. Image credit: FIRST Championship

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