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Chaos reigns at LEGO robot challenge

Corporate teams battle to support youth LEGO league

Posted: May 6, 2012 - 12:15am
Alaska Robotics teammates Pat Race and Tara Greenwood ruminate over their "malfunctioning" Chaos Theory robot at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, (FIRST) LEGO League Corporate Challenge on Friday at the Baranof Hotel. Team Looking for Work took home the trophy with a high score of 242.  Russell Stigall
Russell Stigall
Alaska Robotics teammates Pat Race and Tara Greenwood ruminate over their "malfunctioning" Chaos Theory robot at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, (FIRST) LEGO League Corporate Challenge on Friday at the Baranof Hotel. Team Looking for Work took home the trophy with a high score of 242.

Robots are known for power and precision and elicit awe at the engineering prowess of their creators. They are also known for many their many scenes of mayhem and destruction in Hollywood movies. Both were on display at the FIRST LEGO League Corporate Challenge at the Baranof Hotel on Friday.

Juneau Economic Development Council’s Science Technology Engineering and Math program held the event to support For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’s youth LEGO League.

The night’s winning team, Looking for Work, “Hire us!” they cheered, displayed the speed and precision of robotics as they shepherded their stable of LEGO NXT robot bodies through a series of up to 15 missions. The mayhem was exemplified by Alaska Robotics’ Chaos Theory robot.

Looking for Work teammates Michael Wittig and Martin Stendevad had a rough first round, missing several objectives, but still pulling off the second highest score.

Their team captain videoed the first round, giving them clues on how to improve. Their aim was one way. They also found out they’d forgotten to plug in a robot’s sensors.

“The first (robot), there is no navigation, Wittig said. “Its aim, and then it goes on an arc and them comes back on an arc,” Wittig said. Their second robot also failed to perform as expected.

The video analysis paid off as they improved in their second round. But it was the final round that put them on top with 242 points — and for the first time an adult team scored higher than the high school teams on the same course.

Wittig said teamwork won the day.

“Because of the (multi-bodied) nature of our robot, teamwork is critical. So I can’t do it without Martin,” Wittig said.

While Looking for Work took the precise route in designing its robot, Alaska Robotics settled on chaos. Picture a figure skater in full spin with arms like 10-foot garden hoses. Then set her loose in a cage stacked with plastic blocks. As announcer and KXLL program director Andy Kline said many times while Chaos ran, “Watch out!”

It wasn’t just mindless thrashing, mind you, Alaska Robotics has a philosophy about its programming rooted in entropy and chaos theory.

“It’s a non-deterministic universe and we are sort of moving out of the classical ideas of, you know, you have these inputs and you have a known output and in these chaotic times we wanted to tap into the interconnectedness of all things and to see what happens if we go back to the elementary and primeval … our algorithms are in some ways primitive or even shamanistic … it’s not just about destruction,” team member Tara Greenwood said.

The team’s high score of 100 points was good enough for fifth place.

Each team starts with the same number of points. Once started, the robots must work autonomously. If touched, the team loses points and the robot must return to its starting point. Points are awarded for completion or partial completion of missions.

Six teams competed in three rounds for the highest score — Looking for Work, Integrity Real Estate Inspections, TechOpsAK, Boreal, Alaska Robotics and Legomaniacs.

This is the second year Andy Kline has announced for the adult challenge.

“Adults can learn from it, kids can learn from it’” Kline said. “It kind of bringing these mathematical and problem solving skills to kids, it’s a very cool thing they do.”

The Challenge was held to support the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology LEGO League for youth. 1,500 Alaskan students compete in seven qualifying and two championship robotics tournaments in the state.

JEDC STEM is hosting a First LEGO League coaching and mentoring clinic, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on May 15 at its office at 603 W. Willoughby.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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