Building future robotics

Thanks to an inspiring team of students at Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ont., Canada has international bragging rights in the development of robotics innovations by tomorrow’s engineers. Team 1114, also known as Simbotics, finished the year with a record of three regional wins, a chairman’s award, a championship division win and world champion status in this year’s Robotics Competition (FRC).

Created to help young people discover that science, math and technology can be as cool as the high school quarterback, FRC pairs high school students with technology companies to design and build robots for competition.

Simbotics’ robot out-classed its competitors on the game field. This year’s competition required the robots to lift a giant game ball over a barrier in the centre of the field, then complete a loop and pick up the ball as many times as possible in just over two minutes. Because the Simbotics robot launched rather than placed the ball, it racked up the points by completing many more loops than its competitors.

Fun and games aside, the St. Catharines’ team is a great example of how good design can make all the difference.

“This competition gives students a really great opportunity to work with engineers from their local communities and see what it means to be an engineer,” says Karthik Kanagasabapathy, a systems analyst and mentor with the Simbotics team. “You can only learn so much in science and math class; this gives students invaluable hands-on industry experience.”

Unlike the robotics competitions seen on TV where robotic creations smash each other to pieces, FRC stages short games played by autonomous and remote-controlled robots that are designed and built in six weeks (from a common set of parts) by a team of 15 to 25 high school students and a handful of industry mentors.

The competition is difference each year, says Spencer Hunt, a grade-12 manufacturing student and FRC team leader at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, Ont. “Taking part in FRC costs, $6,000. That entry fee covers the cost of competition and the kit of parts provided to each team. Each kit includes the major components required to power and control the robot, such as a circuit board, batteries or other construction materials.” The students also get a very detailed list of specifications, including robot size and capabilities.

This international competition, the brainchild of entrepreneur Dean Kamen was launched 16 years ago at a high school in New Hampshire.

“Kamen, who invented the portable insulin pump, Crown stent and Segway human transporter, looked at the American education system and felt that too many kids were dropping out and not too many were interested in engineering, science and technology,” explains Karen Rosenthal, administrator of Robotics Canda. “Everyone thought they were going to be basketball stars, or movie stars, and he wanted to change that culture. He wants kids to celebrate the inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs of the world.”

Just eight teams were involved in the first year of the competition, but by next fall 1,500 teams worldwide are expected to participate. Currently regional competitions are held in Brazil, Canada, Israel and the US, but teams are coming from many countries. Rosenthal says is looking at adding a regional competition in New Zealand “in the near future.”

The regional events are typically held over two and a half days in university arenas that involve 40 to 70 teams cheered by thousands of fans. A championship event caps the season. Referees oversee the competition while judges evaluate teams and present awards for design, technology, sportsmanship and commitment to . The chairman’s award is the program’s highest honor and recognizes a team that best exemplifies ’s values.

With more than 1,500 teams competing worldwide, clearly Simbotics is doing something special to have captured the world title. Praised by its competitors for having brought a truly awesome design to the competition this year, the St. Catharines’ team can attribute its success to a number of factors, not the least of which is a team of students that are exceptionally committed to the competition and major sponsor (GM’s powertrain division).

Sixteen-year-old Brandon Pruniak, one of Simbotics two co-captains, spent three hours a day for six weeks practicing with the robot leading up to the competition. “One of the reasons we have been so successful is that we actually have two robots—a competition robot and a replica that we take to a practice site and test,” he explains.

The replica was built using parts from previous years’ robots and materials provided by sponsors. This allows the team to ship the competition robot the required six weeks before the event and still log long hours on the practice course with the replica. Simbotics isn’t the only team to do this, roughly 15 per cent of the schools have practice robots.

INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT

Sponsors such as GM are key to FRC’s success. Not only do they provide the financial and material support to make the competition possible, they also provide mentors.

“BMP donated the aluminum, steel and some plastics (approximately $3,000) to construct the robot,” explains Gord Nicholls, technical support manager at Brampton, Ont.’s BMP Metals Inc., a sponsor of the White Oaks’ team in Oakville, Ont. “And I personally mentored the students two evenings a week and each Saturday for six weeks.”

He also travelled with the team to competitions and offered support as a part of the pit crew. But when the competition is over, many mentors continue to play a significant role in the students’ lives providing them with internship opportunities, offering guidance and assisting with further skills development.

“I continue to be a source of support for the teachers at the school,” says Nicholls. “Some students have e-mailed me about the skills trades and others have arranged personal tours of our facility to see first hand what the skilled trade could be for them.”

Industry and academia have been working together more closely over the last decade to stem a looming skills shortage across the country. The Specialist High Skills Major-Manufacturing program that Nicholls continues to be involved with at White Oaks is offering students entering grade 11 a chance to develop skills and knowledge in math, science and technology through integration in a manufacturing environment. Students then apply the skills and knowledge through internships in a variety of manufacturing and business environments.

Students like Hunt take a half-day program in the morning first and second semester in both grade 11 and 12. This 10-credit program makes entry into college or university easier and actually allows them to skip some first year courses. Students heading for university earn two math, two physics, four manufacturing technology and two summer co-op credits; while college destination students earn two math, two physics, four manufacturing technology, two summer co-op credits, plus one optional robotics.

Ultimately working closely with teammates and industry professionals, students are getting more out of it than just programming, welding and machining skills. They’re also gaining valuable teamwork experience and building the confidence they’ll need to seek out exceptional career opportunities.

Keep an eye on . It’s churning out the world’s next generation of engineers and the Canadians among them are reason to be optimistic about the future of manufacturing in this country.