Alex Sutton, left, controls South-Doyle High School's robot as John Manning, Josh Gray and Joseph Day watch as it picks up rubber containers. In six weeks South-Doyle High School students designed, built and tested a robot that will compete in a national competition this month.

S-Y Nerds create robot

Team is one of only two in state to enter hi-tech science competition


March 4, 2003

Eleven South-Doyle High School students have created a rolling, moving, tilting, lifting robot that will demonstrate its skills in a national competition later this month.

The self-titled Nerds Inc. team from South-Doyle is one of two Tennessee schools in the FIRST Robotics Competition. The other is Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville. The South-Doyle robot and its creators will compete in FIRST's March 27-29 Peachtree Regional competition. They'll be one of 42 teams in the regional contest at the Gwinnett Civic Center in Duluth, Ga. Regional winners go to FIRST's national championship in Houston in April.

"FIRST" is an acronym meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Begun by New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen in 1992, the program includes 20,000 students on 800 teams in 23 regional events. FIRST aims to encourage students to explore science and technology by designing, building, programming and operating robots to compete in sports-like tournaments with time clocks and referees. Each team must design, build and program a working robot from a pile of parts in six weeks.

South-Doyle diversified technology teacher Rocky Riley put together an after-school student team interested in making such a robot. The team was sent a kit of parts by FIRST. But the seven seniors, two juniors and two sophomores found out the kit didn't have all the right stuff. So they ordered components, from wheels to wire connectors to aluminum angles. Many parts were ordered through their mentors in the University of Tennessee College of Engineering. UT mentors were Dr. David Page, research assistant professor in UT's Imaging, Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) Lab, and IT specialist Tak Motoyama, who also works in the IRIS Lab. The lab is directed by Dr. Mongi Abidi, a professor in UT's electrical and computer engineering department and another mentor for the students.

Nerds Inc. members discovered that creating their robot wasn't like putting together a giant Lego or Erector set. "It was like they sent us a bunch of assorted motors and said, 'Have fun,' " said senior Alex Sutton. A lot of mentoring came from Doug Manning, owner of Phelps Engineering Company Inc. and father of senior and Nerds Inc. member John Manning. The elder Manning had tools students needed to machine parts for their robot. He taught them to use tools like a milling machine and ladle and helped guide them through the design and building process, said Riley.

Junior Josh Gray and senior Letisha Kearney did a lot of the work machining parts. Josh "thought it would be cool to work on a robot" when he heard the program announced on the school intercom. "I thought it'd be like an Erector set. I didn't know I'd be machining parts, making a design, making the parts work."

The team received a $6,000 grant from NASA and a $5,000 grant from Kimberly-Clark and UT College of Engineering. The project also got a $1,500 grant from Sea Ray Boats. Some funds paid for contest registration, the FIRST kit and the numerous extra parts. Other money will help pay for travel, hotel and expenses during the competition, said Riley.

What became a complex robot started out simply as lines on paper. "The best way to design is pen and paper," said John Manning, who was the robot's main designer. "We started it with just a piece of graph paper" He also used a computer program in the FIRST kit to design the 60-inch-tall, 129.6-pound high-tech machine.

The goal, on paper and in the computer, was to build a robot to compete in FIRST's 2003 "Stack Attack" event. Students designed the radio-signal controlled robot to lift, stack and push large empty plastic storage containers. A motorized pulley system moves the robot's arms; pneumatic pressure controls the tilt, brakes and arm clamps. "The brakes work about too well," said Riley. "Nobody is going to push us around." Robotic moves are controlled by a student who maneuvers two FIRST-supplied black joysticks that look like they could be from an old video game.

The "Stack Attack" goal is simple - whoever possesses the most plastic storage containers at the end of a two-minute game wins. Strategy and robotic ability play into a contest that determines a winner through a complex point system. Nerds Inc. will be paired with another school in the contest and must work together to vanquish their opponents.

While the robot is impressive, its creation may not be the students' biggest accomplishment. "The biggest thing is the problem-solving and what do you do when you run into a problem," said Page. Instead of quitting, he said students learned to work through the snags.

Other NERDS Inc. students are sophomores Joseph Day and Devin Headrick, junior Andrew Jordan, and seniors Ian Campbell, Trina Caciabauda, Anthony Lewelling, and Eric Neeley.

Ian said he joined "for no good reason," but discovered "there are real-world applications to gears and motors and pneumatics."

Amy McRary can be reached at 865-342-6437.

Copyright 2003, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.