High-Tech Teamwork

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March 15, 2008
By JANICE PODSADA | Courant Staff Writer

Bulldog, a 120-pound robot, is a speed demon. His logo bears a checkered flag.

“It can travel 12½ feet in one second — that’s 15 miles an hour,” said Justin Holt, 17, a Rockville High School senior and a member of a team of 65 students from several Hartford-area high schools that designed the robot.

Speed helped Bulldog win its first round of competition in the Connecticut Regional FIRST Robotics tournament at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford Friday.

Like every other team, Holt’s team had just six weeks to design and build a robot that could bend down, do laps and capture a 7-pound, 40-inch ball from atop a 6-foot-6-inch overpass.

Teams work with teachers and volunteer mentors to complete the project. Locally, those mentors include engineers and software programmers at such companies as United Technologies, Gerber Scientific and Dominion.

The three-day regional competition, which pits 62 teams from seven states and three countries, was attended by more than 1,500 high school students.

The event concludes today and is sponsored by United Technologies Corp. and the Connecticut Science Center.

In 1989, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, founded the nonprofit organization FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” to generate interest in science and technology among children and teenagers.

This year, more than $9 million in college scholarships is available to FIRST participants.

Six weeks before the competition, teams are shipped a robot kit, which includes a set of hard and soft components. Teams are free to use or not use the parts. They must, however, solve “the problem.” This year the problem was designing a robot that could pick up that 7-pound, 40-inch ball.

In this battle of the bots, brute force won’t cut it because it’s more important to accomplish the assigned task than knock down your opponents.

And while the focus of the competition is designing a quick, agile robot, it’s also about time management, budgeting, cash flow and meeting tight deadlines.

“These teams are actually small businesses,” said event Chairman Michael Sperber, a program manager at Hamilton-Sundstrand.

Not all the team members are involved in the robot’s design and construction, he said.

“There are students who do marketing, prepare budgets, make sure the robots are shipped,” he said. “Some teams are structured like a business. They have a chief executive officer and a chief technology officer.

“We just hired a former team member,” Sperber said. “She graduated from college with a degree in marketing and finance. We hired her because she can talk to the engineers.”

Through the years, Pam Marra has watched her two sons compete as members of South Windsor High School’s team, the Bobcat Robotics. Last year, the team joined with one from the Massachusetts Academy of Math & Science in Worcester and Cimarron-Memorial High School of Las Vegas to win the FIRST International Championship in Georgia.

This year, she sat in the bleachers cheering on her son Chris Marra, 17, a member of the Bobcat team and a senior at South Windsor High School.

“My oldest son, Greg, is now in college studying to be an electrical engineer,” Marra said. “My younger son, Chris, loves the technology, but his true love is the business side. He arranges the team’s lodgings, he solicits donations and he does the spreadsheets.”

The free event, which concludes today, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.