Robotic Recruitment

High-school students teamed with new hires from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to construct this robot. NASA is hoping for a robotic breakthrough for planetary exploration.

Courtesy of NASA

NASA gets its money's worth by sponsoring competitions

For the last nine years, NASA has been recruiting future high-tech employees by letting them play with robots.

Dave Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters, said the space agency's annual sponsorship of the nationwide FIRST Robotics Competition Championship has brought 'immediate returns in lighting a spark about science and engineering in high-school students.'

The federal IT work force crisis became apparent to Lavery more than 10 years ago. 'We were noticing the same people over and over again on our robotics projects' such as the Mars Rover, he said.

'There was no new blood, and the robotics experts were getting older and grayer. It was a future personnel problem.'

He calculated that if each NASA research center would sponsor one team of students to design homemade robots and pit them against each other, 'we would have maybe 100 potential roboticists per year, even if only 5 percent got advanced degrees.'

Nine years later, he said, 'We're just seeing the first students get their degrees'and we're hiring them.'

From two teams initially, the championship has grown to 292 teams that competed in Houston in April.

Resources of all kinds

NASA centers support competitions in their regions, not only with money but with engineering support and, in some cases, fabrication of parts.

'The limiting factor is not money,' Lavery said. Instead, the limit is the number of NASA workers who are willing to put in the time and effort to mentor a team in their area.

'We want students and our engineers to work together,' he said. 'We want to expose the students to professional engineering standards and practices' in hopes of breakthroughs that NASA can exploit in its space program.

So far, however, no competition robot has gone directly into space.

An unanticipated benefit, Lavery said, is that the six-week timeframe for robot-building teaches the NASA mentors project management skills fast.

'We send our new hires to run the projects with insufficient resources and insufficient staff,' he said.

'They come in with no experience at building, testing, documenting and manufacturing. By the end of the six weeks, they will have learned how to run every aspect of a project. It's in-house training.'

Choice of trains or arms

Different teams take different approaches'for example, concentrating on robust drive trains or on precise manipulator arms.

All, however, start from the same construction kit, which includes motors and the Stamp-II microprocessor-controller assembly from Innovation First Inc. of Greenville, Texas, that can be programmed in Basic. Teams add wheels, treads or their own design innovations.

'Every year they work on a completely different problem,' Lavery said.

This year's problem, called Stack Attack, required the robots to pick up as many plastic objects as possible from a raised ramp at the center of a 54-foot-long playing field and stack them in scoring zones at either end. Simultaneously, they were supposed to try to block their opponents from doing the same and scoring against them.

Until now, the teams have tele-operated all the entries with joy sticks. This year, a 15-second initial round of autonomous operation weeded out the less competent robots that could not figure out how to avoid collisions with their competitors.

Several teams sponsored by NASA were regional finalists in the competition this year.

The photo at right is of a top regional team from NASA Johnson Space Center, Savannah State University, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and a local high school.

NASA contributed about $2 million to fund the 3,000 students' work in 2003. Corporate sponsors included such industry giants as DaimlerChrysler and General Motors Corp. Universities also awarded about $3 million in scholarships to individual participants.

'It's a dirt-cheap investment that's self-serving,' Lavery said. 'NASA desperately needs more experts in robotics. These kids are employees in our pipeline.'

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