Students Push the Envelope Of Robotic Ballplayers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WITH a week to go before the US First Competition in Nashua, N.H., knots of robotmakers could be found in various corners of the Bose Corporation's sprawling hilltop headquarters here.

Some of them hovered around computer screens, making final design adjustments. Others pondered how to perfect the shooting mechanism. A couple were in the machine shop getting some pointers on operating a lathe.

The robot being put together by the Bose/Assabet Valley Vocational Technical High School/Framingham High School team was testing its creators' skills and patience.

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Nick Maddix, a veteran of last year's US First tournament and a team leader, admitted ``We're making things hard for ourselves.'' The students and their Bose colleagues had come up with a highly innovative way of scooping up the soccer balls that had to be deposited in a goal to win points: A custom-made augur would spin the balls to the top of the roughly 3.5-foot wide and 3-foot tall robot. From there they would spill into the mouth of a spring-loaded cannon designed to shoot the balls up into the octagonal goal.

The team discarded the idea of simply concocting a mechanism to lift the balls up. ``We decided it [the shooter] may not lead to winning the competition, per se, but it sets a great example of what could be done,'' says Mr. Maddix with matter-of-fact confidence. ``The alternatives seemed boring.''

The kit supplied by US First organizers had ``basic stuff,'' Maddix says. Within the rules of the contest, teams can improvise some of their own equipment, which the Bose group did with gusto.

Finn Arnold, a Bose engineer who has participated in all three US First competitions, pointed out the freshly machined brass gears in one part of the robot, and the stylishly cut plastic wheels. The augur, he said, was a ton of work, requiring precision design and execution.

Team members were here at Bose - known for its high-quality speakers, not for robots - nearly every afternoon for the past six weeks, and often long into the night. They created not only the machine itself, but also video and written documentation of their work, as required by US First.

Was it all worth it?

Joanne Au, a senior at Framingham bound for MIT next year, says the project firmed up her interest in engineering. She recalled the intriguing challenge of slowing down the augur's speed so it would pick up the balls correctly.

All the students were exposed to technology - ranging from advanced 3-D CAD-CAM computer programs to machine tools - that they wouldn't have had much chance to operate otherwise.

And though the Framingham-area team didn't win in Nashua, they did get recognition from US First for ``The Most Creative Design.'' Those long hours at Bose were not for naught.

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