Students test their robotics abilities at AFRL

Kieran Ercolino and Kieran Vollmar from the New Mexico School for the Deaf prepare their robot for the practice course of the black maze during the Air Force Research Laboratory La Luz Academy’s Robotics Challenge Expo on March 2 at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Kieran Ercolino and Kieran Vollmar from the New Mexico School for the Deaf prepare their robot for the practice course of the black maze during the Air Force Research Laboratory La Luz Academy’s Robotics Challenge Expo on March 2 at Kirtland Air Force Base.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Student teams from around New Mexico gathered at the Air Force Research Laboratory La Luz Academy’s Robotics Challenge Expo on March 2.

The teams represented seven schools, plus home-schoolers.

Students had to program Boe-Bot robots to complete more than six courses, and compete against other teams in a robotics quiz bowl to test their knowledge of programming and robotics.

“We really want students to come away with a better understanding of robotic systems,” said AFRL La Luz Academy Director Ronda Cole.

The robotics quiz bowl was set up in Jeopardy-style format and asked questions such as, “What was the first computer used?” or “What is another name for Base 2 code?” It also asked them programming questions such as, “What is the command to turn on LEDs?”

For those wondering about the answers, they are “abacus,” “binary” and “high,” respectively.

The courses used everything from hard programming the robot to the use of sensors to complete the obstacles. The hard programming told the robot when to turn after so many inches of forward movement, while the sensors would cause the robot to turn or follow a line based on detection of the environment.

The challenge also opened science, technology, engineering and math fields to students who deal with disabilities.

“It has been fun to learn to program and build our robot. While we can’t hear, being deaf, we can do just as much as anyone else,” said Kieran Vollmar, a student at the New Mexico School for the Deaf.

It was the school’s first time taking part in the robotics challenge.

AFRL showcased a couple of its robots, even a toy robot with some artificial intelligence.

Baxter, one of the AFRL robots, is used for research on advanced autonomous assembly by the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate. The other robot was Cozmo, a toy robot whose programming can be altered or “hacked” to improve its function based on personal preference.

“It’s a little robot with a big personality,” said Marcos Martinez, son of AFRL scientist Oscar Martinez.

Oscar Martinez demonstrated Cozmo’s facial recognition capabilities and the programing to either greet a person or to sound an alarm.

Also making an appearance at the robotics challenge was a look-alike of the beloved Disney Pixar robot Wall-E.

A husband and wife team working at AFRL built Wall-E during their personal time to do STEM outreach with kids. William Gibson and Julie Smith made the robot out of wood and matched the paint and texture to the cartoon version.

Then using tiny motors, they gave him very expressive eyes. The robot can be voice interactive or remote controlled.

A new challenge for teams was the light-sensor course, in which a robot had to follow a strand of cabled lights around a fantasy scene.

While most teams hadn’t yet used the sensors in their kits to do this, several rushed to figure out how to connect the sensors and write the code to complete the challenge.