Thursday, April 21, 2005

It begins...a little history

It was not too long ago that Dragonfly, my high school freshman daughter announced to me that she had joined the robotics club at school. I didn't even know the school had a robotics club. As an engineer with NASA, I knew there were high school robotics competitions. Our NASA center sponsors a bunch of teams, and I had thought a few times about getting involved, but like many things, I hadn't figured out when I'd have some time to do it.
Dragonfly has a history of being interested in everything. But she doesn't have time for anything more, so some things end up not getting much of her time. I decided to hang back a little to see if she was truly interested.

The robotics club exists to field an entry for the FIRST robotics competition. The students have six weeks to build a robot, using a mix of parts from FIRST and from anywhere else. Then the robots get shipped off to the competition. The competition is quite different from the robot competitions you see on TV. The focus is much more on what the robots can do other than beat each other to a pulp. This year's challenge involved moving PVC tetrahedrons into or on top of tetrahedral goals. The robots compete in teams of three, forming a new alliance each round. The competition is something to behold. Imagine a basketball arena full of the school geeks. (As an engineer, I use the term geek in the positive sense; I'm proud to be one of 'em.) Some of these robots are really advanced and can do lots of stuff.

'fly's team didn't do really well. It's only their second year, and they're still learning. But they did better than their cross-town rivals, so they're feeling pretty good. On the way home, she says to her mother and me, "(Sigh), now I've got to wait another year to do this again."

Here's where I see an opportunity to play and pretend it's for the childrens' educational benefit. "You know, we could do some robot building at home during the off season." I look around at the faces. Dragonfly and Wolf Bait, her little brother, are grinning wildly. My wife is not looking displeased. So far so good. I know I'm going to have to tread a fine line here. I'll be able to build robots with the kids, as long as I don't fall too far behind on the other household projects, like the trim that needs staining, and the rec room that needs...well, everything. I guess my daughter isn't the only one who is interested in everything and has time for nothing.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Getting Started

Let's get started. This is a journal of our efforts in building robots. We're starting out as amateurs, so we don't have any great wisdom to impart. As we learn things, we'll post them here and hopefully help someone out. The web is a rich resource, and we've learned a lot from what others have posted. Hopefully we can return the favor.

You may have noticed the "we" in the paragraph above. No, no delusions of royalty, and it's not an editorial we. I refer to myself and my two kids, my partners in these experiments. More about us later. Let's have a look at our first robot.

Well, it's not really a robot yet. It's a vehicle right now. The point of this robot is to learn how to build one...and to have a little fun as well. Yes, those are cordless drills, and yes, the frame is a toilet seat. The motors come from a local discount chain, for $20 each. The frame was something we had laying around. The rear wheels are from the local home center and are for a lawn mower.

The 18v motors in the drills are powerful. Squeezing the triggers by hand can easily cause the vehicle to do a "wheelie". We'll need to put mass up front to counter this.