Robot warriors: Local kids vie for world domination

Image 1. Fun and functionality: Team Robots-R-Us gathers around two robots that could someday improve the lives of senior citizens. Image 2. Putting it to the test: 11-year-old Maia Judd practices the quilt square challenge in advance of Saturday's competition. Photos by Max Cooper.

what: FIRST Lego League Robotics Tournament
where: UNCA’s Sherrill Center
when: Saturday, Nov. 3. noon-3:30 p.m. http://www.rocwnc.org

Seven children huddle around a long, white table. They jostle and stand on their tiptoes to get a better view of a three-wheeled robot as it churns toward the center of the table. Without the touch of a finger, the robot picks up a multicolored square and brings it back to the corner. If everything goes according to plan, this motion could earn the local FIRST Lego League robotics team international fame. 

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a multinational program for kids of all ages who want to explore the magic of robots. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, local children in the 9-14 age group prepared for a looming deadline. Saturday, Nov. 3 marks the regional competition during which 24 teams from WNC will be ranked based on the design of their robot, its functionality and their own teamwork. But before they advance to the state competition in Raleigh, these local children must craft the perfect robot.

The kids choose from hundreds of Lego pieces to create two specialized robots that can perform a variety of tasks, of varying complexity. These spectacles of engineering are more than just a quirky hobby. This year, each robot is designed to improve the lives of senior citizens through technology.

"Some old people have trouble going up the stairs, so you can either go up the stairs or you can go up the ramp," explains 11-year-old Maia Judd. Her team, Robots-R-Us, designed a robot that can haul itself up a Lego ramp and then traverse a gap, an action that can present challenges to senior citizens who struggle with mobility.

A different robot uses color sensors to pick the correct medicine out of a line of pill bottles represented by Legos. By building a model robot that could someday help seniors stay healthy and active, the children do more than entertain themselves; they also tackle real world problems while gaining a host of other skills. "I think this is a tremendous opportunity for them," says adult volunteer John Schnautz. "You really see them grow."

Working with technology in such a tactile way gives children confidence to embark on other mechanical adventures while making math fun, says Schnautz. "A 60-degree triangle isn't as interesting as making a robot do a 60-degree turn," he explains. The brightly colored Legos appeal to the kids' natural curiosity and playfulness, allowing them to rekindle their initial attraction to the classic toys.

Eleven-year-old Matthew Daggerhart has a closet full of Legos at home, and his father owns a robot kit similar to the ones that FIRST Lego League uses. His parents encourage Matthew to try new things as part of his homeschool education; crafting robots gives him a chance to be more hands-on. "I have other classes, but this is the only one where you actually build stuff," says Matthew. Working with their hands not only helps kids advance their understanding of technology, but it also gives them practical skills to improve society.

So will there come a day when robots are integral to the health and well-being of senior citizens? Matthew says yes. "Definitely, at the rate technology is progressing, I think it would be more surprising if it didn't happen within the next 50-60 years." He foresees a humanoid robot that can help people both young and old. When asked what his dream robot could do, he says, "I think probably just the all-purpose robot that would do everything I don't want to do. Chores, cooking, cleaning."

Matthew hopes to become a video game tester or Lego designer, careers that would utilize his newfound passion for technology. Maia would also like to build a robot that can cook, but for a different reason. She wants to be a chef someday. Maia imagines designing a robot to help chop vegetables and prep food before she puts it in the pan.

But before vegetable-chopping, floor-vacuuming robots become commonplace, Matthew believes that humans need to set limits. "I'm kind of worried because eventually, you know what they say, one day we'll just go over the edge and make robots so smart that they'll think for themselves."

FIRST Lego League’s robots are about the size of a remote-controlled car, so they're not likely to attack humans anytime soon. However, they do have the power to ignite a passion for science. "The most fun part is getting to see the robot actually work," exclaims Matthew. "After all the trial and error, just finally seeing it finally do what it's supposed to do."

The competition is only days away, and while the kids say they wish they had more time, volunteer John Schnautz says it's too close to call. "This is like the baseball playoffs. I can’t make a prediction," he says.

You never know, this could be the year that the FIRST robots take over the world.

Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.

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