Geo Week News

January 9, 2007

Youth: The Future of Innovation

Happy New Year to all our SparView readers. We wish you all good health and prosperity for 2007. We begin the year with a story about tomorrow’s innovators learning some valuable project management lessons as well as getting a practical introduction to modular design, dimensional control and positioning technologies. 

On December 16 the North Andover Legotrons competed against 47 other teams in a meet of the FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competition at Worcester Polytechnic in Worcester, MA. This was a lead-up to the FIRST LEGO League Nano Quest World Festival at the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center, April 12-14, 2007. More than 100 teams (including the North Andover Legotrons) from 38 countries will participate in this 2½-day tournament celebration of their robotic and challenge project accomplishments.

Since September I’ve been helping one of my neighbors coach the North Andover Legotrons, a team of 7 middle-school students (ages 12-14) to prepare for a FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competition. I’ve learned a lot from these kids – their enthusiasm is infectious, and they all have some mechanical skills I’ve yet to master. The competition requires them to design and program a Lego robot for a sequence of tasks. Unless you’re a recently minted graduate, this is not the Lego you grew up with. Today’s offering includes the familiar blocks, of course, but there’s also an upgrade that includes a programmable block, motors, position and rotation sensors, gears, belts, chains and several choices of software to program whatever you build. If, like me, you’re from the Erector Set or Mecchano generation, trust me – the new Lego is way better.

RoboNautica 2006 – Worcester Polytechnic.

Modular design and construction is the rule of the day. Our 13-year-old has been educating me on some of the finer points of Lego methods. For the competition, the robots have to operate autonomously. Each mission begins with one of the team members pushing the start button while the robot is in base – points are lost for human intervention outside base. Participants get valuable lessons in the strengths and limitations of positioning both by dead reckoning and by indexing against fixed walls. Team members learn all about robust design principles too – it’s one thing to get the robot to execute its mission once; it’s another challenge to make it deliver 20 times in a row. All of us got some valuable lessons in team cooperation as well. The peer review process can be tough, of course, but that’s one way designs get hardened to competition-readiness. A second element of the competition is a research project – our team met with three nanotechnology scientists and built a working prototype of a solar-powered iPod charger mounted on a baseball cap.

FLL began with a pilot in 1998. Every year the theme changes – this year’s program is all about nanotechnology. Next year’s focus is alternative energy resources. The program attracts entrants from all over the world – the FLL estimates more than 60,000 children will participate this year. Dean Kamen – inventor of portable insulin pumps, home-use dialysis machines, stair-climbing wheelchairs and the Segway scooter – launched this program in collaboration with LEGO Group’s Kjeld Kirk Kristiensen. If you’ve ever had the good fortune to hear Kamen speak (my last opportunity was at Autodesk University in 2004) you know he has a passion – to revitalize science and engineering among today’s youth. Unhappy with the lack of investment in mathematics, science and engineering in our education systems, he created the not-for-profit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization. Kamen has rallied the support of corporate sponsors as diverse as Boston Scientific, Baxter International, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, NASA, Autodesk and National Instruments. There’s certainly room for an engineering/construction firm on this list, and an instrument manufacturer too!

A lot of technical innovation in the survey and industrial measurement business stems from advances in robotic vision, particularly for autonomous vehicle navigation. Development of today’s advanced laser scanners can be traced to yesterday’s advances in range finding and motion control developed specifically for machine vision and remote sensing at the world’s leading research institutions – the pioneering development work of Auguste D’Aligny, Dr. Alan Carswell, Dr. Jerry Dimsdale, Dr. Christoph Fröhlich, Eric Hoffman, Ben Kacyra, Michel Paramythioti and Dr. Johannes Riegl comes to mind. Who knows? Perhaps one of tomorrow’s innovators of next-generation technology will be at the Georgia Dome in April.

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