The Future Is on Display: Robotics at Fair

Exhibits of 4-H kids' work go beyond livestock, cooking to the latest technology

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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Meet Pnemo, pronounced with a silent “p” as in pneumatics. You know, that branch of technology that deals with mechanical motion produced by pressurized gas? Pnemo can play catch, shoot hoops and zoom around — on his own or at the whim of the students controlling him. He’s a robot made out of aluminum, steel, a computer and router, PVC pipes and a 12-volt battery, among other odds and ends.

This brainchild of the local 4-H robotics team, the Clover Bots, is on display during the run of the Clark County Fair.

“If I want to conquer the world, I have to get a couple of these, right?” said a passer-by who watched the robot shoot a goal.

The Clover Bots placed in the top third among teams around the Pacific Northwest in this year’s annual robotics competition at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. Spencer Gwinn, 16, explained that the goal of this year’s competition was for the robot to be able to manipulate a large exercise ball — to pick it up, carry it, throw it and score a goal. Teams around the world learn what the challenge is shortly after the New Year and get six weeks to complete the robot.

The Clover Bots get advice from mentors with Boeing and Hewlett Packard.

“This is how I like to think about it: You can take a tangled-up pile of wires and a computer, and make something that moves,” said 16-year-old Justin Underland, a student at Vancouver iTech Preparatory.

Competing is stressful, but fun, like any sport. With the goal to score points, the team gets Pnemo to pass the ball around in an arena about the size of a basketball court and score goals with other robots. Red and blue PVC pipes block opposing players from knocking the ball out of place.

“It’s a lot of offense and defense at the same time,” Gwinn said.

Other teams were big and highly skilled, with 60 or more team members. Some had robots hooked up to Kinects and controlled by hand movements. The Clover Bots’ nine members, mostly freshman and sophomore students hailing from small high schools around Clark County, makes them kind of the underdogs in robotics competition, said Annette Backous, who helps supervise the team. Big schools, such as Skyview High School and Camas High School, have their own teams.

Gwinn, an iTech Preparatory and Running Start student, said that a small team has its advantages and disadvantages. Although they might not win the district competition and move on to the world competition, they get more hands-on experience and they’re forced to learn a little bit of everything that goes into building a robot. While they were at the competition, they tweaked Pnemo based on what they learned from other teams.

“You always try to improve your design,” Gwinn said.

With all the parts that go into making the robots and the high entry fees for competition, it ends up being an expensive sport, Backous said. Yet there’s some serious payback, as the team members start thinking about college and jobs. Schools and companies are interested in these young engineers who have practical experience in mechanics, computer science and design. They know how to collaborate and make a product come together on deadline, and how to secure sponsorships.

Last year, $18 million in scholarships went to kids involved in the robotics competitions through the organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). For 2014, the organization secured $20 million.

“It just keeps growing,” Backous said. “Industry targets these kids.”