Engineers Mentor High School Robot Team

February 25, 2004

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Tulane engineering know- how and high school ingenuity will be put to the test at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) regional robotics competition on March 18 in Atlanta.

robotsHo-Hoon Lee, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Liang Yi, one of his graduate students, have been mentoring a team of 30 11th-grade students at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math who are designing and building a robot for the upcoming contest.

The FIRST robotics competition pits teams of robots, their human controllers and human players against each other in frenzied contests to win points.

The teams try to beat both the clock and each other to complete a set of tasks, including sorting a series of colored balls and putting the robots through some sophisticated maneuvers.

Approximately 930 teams involving more than 23,000 students from nearly every state, in addition to Brazil, Canada, Great Britain and Mexico, will compete this year in regional contests, with the winners meeting in a final championship event. Preparing for the competition brings high school students together with university teachers and other advisers in a fascinating, complex project, providing students with rewarding experiences that may well guide their life and career choices.

This is the first year Tulane has helped with this competition, which will have the participation of only three Louisiana teams. The New Orleans Center for Science and Math team is receiving valuable assistance from NASA and from Intralox, a New Orleans area company that manufactures industrial conveyor belts, as well as technical coaching from Tulane. Lee, whose area of research is mechatronics, is a good choice to mentor a robotics team.

"Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary field of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering," explains Lee, "and my research interest is in control of moving objects."

In the course of Lee's research at Tulane he has produced a prototype of an improved industrial overhead crane design and has built a flexible robot. He is currently working on a mobile robot that can be controlled through Internet and wireless communication. The high school team members first met with their Tulane advisers for a planning session in November 2003.

But the actual design and construction of their robot could not begin until Jan. 10, when teams received boxes containing the basic assortment of parts. "The box had some bars, some actuators, and other things," says Lee. "These are just the raw materials. Actually, our students have designed their own robot. There are some robot tasks, and to do the tasks, we have to build a good design."

Construction of the robot has been taking place at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math classrooms on the Delgado Community College campus. Operating on a short time frame, the team has nearly completed its robot, according to Lee. The team is working to complete the robot before the Feb. 20 deadline. Lee and Yi are providing valuable electrical-mechanical expertise to the team.

"We are helping them with the sensors, actuators, computers, interfaces between the sensors and the actuators-to-computer systems," says Lee. "And we have to deal with the wireless communication."

Working with the team has been labor-intensive but rewarding for Lee and his graduate student, who work with the high schoolers in two-hour sessions, three times a week. Lee also has given the student team a tour of his mechatronics laboratory in the engineering school complex. In addition to encouraging talented local high school students to seriously consider the idea of attending Tulane, Lee says he's learning a lot from them.

"I came to this university directly from my country about two and a half years ago, and I didn't understand the background and way of thinking of the students," he says. "So if I understand what they are doing and what they learn in class, I can improve my teaching."

One of Lee's projects at Tulane dovetails with his work on the FIRST competition. He is planning to build 10 identical small robots as teaching and research tools, and he has already built a prototype of the robot. It is equipped with a video camera, wireless and Internet controls, and a very powerful small computer.

"Graduate students will write the control programs," says Lee. One possible teaching application of the robots would be to use them in robotic soccer competitions. "When they are ready, I will send them to international robot soccer contests, and possibly to compete with other university robot soccer teams," he says. "By doing that I can teach my graduate students, and also I can teach the undergraduate students. And a couple of the students in the FIRST robotics team are interested in working with us to build the robots during the summer vacation."

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