Robotics competition paves way for biomedical tools

February 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Group of Bay Area high school students are heading into battle with the help of some high-tech advisors. It's not a football or basketball game, but a national robotics competition and the students are getting help from a company that used robotics to help revolutionize brain surgery.

A step ladder glued together with plastic pipe is the foundation for what will soon become a full-blown robot.

"We have to put this robot done or not into a bag, it gets sealed and we don't touch it again," Santa Teresa High School science adviser Karen Mahoney said.

The students at the San Jose school are crafting their entry for the National FIRST Robotics Competition. Teams design their robot to perform a specific goal and this year's challenge boils down to a sophisticated game of ring-toss.

Romi Phadte is engineering software to help the robot navigate lines on the field. Last year's model used an on board camera to help it play soccer, and this time around, getting the ring to the 10-foot poles is only half the battle.

"We're going to use a kind of fork system that will be able to carry these rings up to certain heights," he said.

To conquer the challenge, the students are developing conceptual skills that will likely be in high demand when they graduate.

Volunteer Paul Vander Griend is a software engineer with Accuray. The Sunnyvale-based company developed "cyber knife," a non-invasive robotic surgery that delivers radiation to tumors.

"There are already scholarships from companies and organizations for kids that are in the FIRST program," he said.

The teams get six weeks to build the robot and the first month of that usually goes into planning -- requiring math, research and of course, patience.

"My favorite part is doing hands on, playing with the big kid tools," robot builder Crystal Poon said.

Once all the bolts are tightened down, students and bots will meet for the first round of competition at San Jose State University next month. From there, the future could stretch as far as technology and imagination can take them.

The competition is pretty fierce as you might imagine. There are about 2,000 teams competing this year, which amounts to more than 50,000 students.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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