Robots for now and the future
Friday, February 28, 2014 9:00 PM
Montgomery County high school students are getting into building and designing robots.
The Paper photo by Frank Phillips.
Michael Hieston (left) and Chase Bales prepare to work on one of the three robots built, programmed and used by the Crawfordsville/Southmont high schools robotics team at Crawfordsville High School Thursday afternoon.
Remember Rosie, the robot on "The Jetsons?" Watching that show for the first time may have your been the first glimpse of what well-behaved robots can do. Of course, there was the robot on "Lost in Space" and a host of other robots on various TV shows and movies, but often, those robots would go berserk and have to be destroyed or at least turned off. Think about the fighting robot that exploded through the door and scared Penny to half to death on "The Big Bang Theory."
Today we have the Roomba, a robot that vacuums the floor while you pursue more pleasurable pursuits.
What will the robots of tomorrow be? Will they be self-driving vehicles that chauffeur us around? Will they be on wheels like Rosie and do maid service for our families? No one knows what the future may bring, of course, but students from Crawfordsville and Southmont high schools are on the Crawfordsville robotics team and they are on the cutting edge of building programmable equipment for the decades ahead.
The program is old school, if robotics can be considered old school.
Darrin Wilcoxson was in his first year as a teacher at CHS when four students decided they wanted to start the team.
Today, there are three teams that work together, building three robots for competition throughout the Midwest.
Wilcoxson estimates each robot has cost $2,000 to $2,500 for parts. That does not count the computer equipment or the Robot C software used to program each robot. Robot C is a subset of the C computer language, said Dylan Mangold, a student programmer. It is not a simple language to master.
"It took me most of last season to learn what I'm doing," Mangold said.
Starter kits cost $1,000, Wilcoxson said. But many parts are not commercially available and have to be hand crafted.
The local teams enter five competitions a year. Crawfordsville is serving as host for a state-wide competition March 15. Then the local teams will be off to the University of Iowa for the World Championships at the St. Louis Convention Center,. If they make it that far, Wilcoxson said.
At each competition, team members give a presentation to the panel of judges about the team's effort to promote robotics.
Each season's competition starts with "the game" assigned to all participating teams. This year, the robots have to pick up plastic blocks autonomously. Once the memory in the robot is programmed by computer, the cord is removed. When the robot begins its task, it's hands off until the task is finished.
The second part of each competition involves members of the team using joysticks to control the robots to complete tasks.
At the beginning of each season, the Crawfordsville teams plan their strategy to win the game.
The three teams at CHS have the same objective but they come up with three ways of getting it done, Wilcoxson said.
When you look at the robots the first time, they look vaguely familiar.
"They are glorified Erector sets," Wilcoxson said.
Glorified, indeed. Teens today have come a long way from bolting together a Ferris wheel powered by an electric motor or a crank.