Wrapped up in robots

Southwest High students compete in statewide robotics competition

LINDEN HILLS – Hans Pflaumer’s passions aren’t the stuff of typical teenage fantasies.

“I have, like, a huge love for metal and plastic, just working with it,” the Southwest High School senior said.

Standing in the school’s woodworking shop one night in early February, Pflaumer was surrounded by it: scraps of aluminum, a coil of medical-grade rubber tubing, sheets of Plexiglas, and yards and yards of electrical wiring.

It was a robot builder’s dream.

Southwest is one of a growing number of Minnesota schools to field a team in the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] Robotics Competition, an engineering challenge dreamed up by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. More than 1,300 teams from the U.S. and abroad design and build their own robots in six weeks then test them in competition.

Only two Minnesota teams competed in 2006. This year, there are 16.

On Feb. 7, just under two weeks until deadline, the 13 members of team Ultraviolet were rushing to complete Southwest High School’s first entry in the competition.

On one table sat the robot’s computer brain, connected by snaking black and red wires to a laptop computer; on another, the half-completed aluminum frame of the robot, looking something like a deconstructed forklift.

“Everything is started, but nothing is finished,” said senior Bryce Anderson, assessing the situation.

That included the computer code that will control the machine during the regional competition March 8-10 in Milwaukee.

Two freshmen, Chris Riddle and Mark Ulrich, spent most of the evening hunched over two laptop computers. When the pizza they’d ordered came, they typed one-handed.

Ulrich said balancing the afterschool and Saturday morning build sessions with regular schoolwork was demanding, but worth the effort.

“I’m learning a lot more here,” he said. “I’m learning something I can use in my career.”

When he said that career might be something in engineering, his father, Franz Ulrich, looked up from the other end of the table, beaming. A mechanical and electrical engineer who works for Plymouth-based medical device manufacturer Nonin Medical, Franz Ulrich was one of several professionals mentoring Ultraviolet.

Nearby, his coworker, Paul Oberleitner, spent the night reinforcing the robot’s frame with Liu Zhiheng, a Chinese foreign-exchange student and junior at Southwest. In about an hour, the two designed and tested a truss system to stabilize two long, aluminum beams.

“This is [the students’] brainchild,” Oberleitner insisted. “I’m just answering questions. Nothing really fits together so well, so you’ve really got to troubleshoot it,” he said. “It gives them a great taste of engineering.”

No Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em-style battle, cooperation and “gracious professionalism” are key concepts in FIRST. The rules of the challenge change each year.

This year, the game is Rack ‘N’ Roll, a timed event that requires teamwork and strategy.

Six teams compete at once, forming two three-team alliances.

In an arena about half the area of a tennis court, the alliances will race to place inflated plastic tubes on a rack.

It sounds simple enough, but Anderson insisted: “It’s ridiculously complicated.”

Each match opens with a 15-second autonomous period, when the robots must drive without human control. Then, the teams get two minutes to operate their robots by remote control.

Alliances score points for placing tubes on the rack. They can also score at the end of the match by having one robot lift another off the ground.

“They give you so many problems to solve that you can’t solve all of them,” Anderson said.

The team, then, had to pick its battles.

Lifting another robot was the easiest way to score a bunch of points, fast. But early indications were that a majority of the teams would just count on lifting their allies at the end of the match.

Being stuck in an alliance with all lifting robots seemed like a losing scenario.

“We wanted to score,” Pflaumer said.

That explained the robot’s resemblance to a forklift. Team Ultraviolet planned to grab tubes one at a time and then lift them onto the rack.

If an alliance member can lift the Ultraviolet robot up at the end, all the better.

The team raised around $17,000 to $18,000 for construction and travel costs. A $6,000 grant from NASA, available to rookie teams, was enough to register and purchase the basic robot kit. Nonin Medical contributed another $10,000.

Josh Chambers, another team mentor, entered the woodshop toward the end of the night’s build session. A mechanical controls engineer with military contractor BAE Systems, Chambers builds robotic systems for use on the battlefield.

He said the FIRST competition challenges high school students in the same way he is challenged in his job: finding the simplest solution to a complex problem.

“They’re handed a kit of parts that you could essentially put together 1,000 ways,” he said. “It’s all about problem-solving.”


Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.