Thursday, March 2, 2017

Robot Update Part 1 - The Geese and Sully

Sometimes I get a bit chided for not doing more updates!  So a few in a row this week.  I had been keeping things quiet as the kids have been working on some great stuff and had purposely been keeping it under wraps as they are quite competitive.  And we could all use some uplifting news here and there.

At first competition - won the Champions Award (all around)
the robot performance (#1) and the robot elimination game
So Robot Revolution, my middle school/elementary team did amazingly this year - and better than last year - but not quite as well as they were really hoping to do.  They have lofty goals - go to Worlds.  And only 2 teams of 530+ can do that from Massachusetts (used to be 1).  Massachusetts is by far the biggest region in the world - so it is the hardest to leave.  Since the competition is 9-14 years old, luck usually favors those older teams and we are still smack in the middle of the age group.

But they are racking up some unbelievable numbers.  In a competition where you are usually limited to 1 award at each competition if any - they won 5 in two.  The only way you can do that is if you win the robot game(s) and a judged award.  Considering that they now have won 8 robot performance awards in three years, they have dominated the robot game in this state.  But more on that later.

So this year's theme for the research project was Animal Allies.  (Who comes up with these names???)  It was a confusing topic to say the least.  Essentially, the kids had to look for a problem where humans and animals interact and make that interaction better for both species.  Somehow biomimicry (the imitation of natures solutions to solve a human problem) also ended up valid as part of that too.  So we spent a day at the Museum of Science in a topical special exhibition during the summer, did some 3-D printing design, and then went back to scratching our heads.

This is the best part of the competition in many ways.  Trying to find a problem and doing the research around it.  It really forces the kids to THINK and observe issues in the world.  So I sent them off to bring me topic areas after a lot of brainstorming and kept my eyes open.  After a great deal of reading and talking, they started to hone in on a few topics.  One was animal enrichment in captive environments where visitors were engaged in the enrichment.  The other was very topical - the movie Sully had just come out and so there were many articles about the dangers of bird strikes on aircraft (both species harmed).

Every year I try to find something to really engage them with movement and building so they can
Well, she found the 'projects' enriching - just
not how the kids intended.  More stomach
enriching, lets say.
develop some insights and thus can innovate, so we brought my poor hamster (they love her) down to the kitchen and they worked on building enrichment stuff for her cage for a day.  Researching about safety of materials, what their habitats are about, etc.  We had a lot of fun and there was much peanut butter used as a safe glue - but she usually ate it.  That got us going about the local zoos and a trip was planned with their education department.  The day of the trip was great and we worked with a zookeeper as well on what their needs and challenges were.  It was a rich topic and we thought we could do something good -- but other constraints made it obvious that it wasn't a 'good' First Lego League project as we would have to go through many committees to make progress and test anything.  Great lessons for the kids to understand the back end of how a place works with new ideas and the pace of progress.

Meanwhile, one of the newer kids who is usually a bit passive was just on fire about the bird strikes. Personally, I think it really struck the blood-and-guts interest of little boys.   I thought it was a real long shot as the FAA is not known as an easy to deal with bureaucracy as flight safety is
Discussion with Zookeepers on animal enrichment
a big deal, I had done several projects for them before.  So I challenged him to find me the name of the person who deals with animals on airports in Boston.  And darned if he didn't twist the web upside down and shake out that name (NOT easy).  I was impressed.  So we contacted the gentleman and low and behold the heavens parted and we knew this was our topic.  There is a USDA person (wildlife biologist) assigned to every airport in the USA and they are in charge of monitoring and modifying the habitats around the airports to reduce the risk and incidents of animal/bird strikes on aircraft.  And not only that - but our region is connected as MassPort and includes three airports under one heading, including Hanscom Airforce Base which is in our town and serves charter/private aircraft and the military, same person for all of them.

That is when it got gooooood.  We needed to start with a tour of the airfield and issues and the USDA person suggested we do it at Hanscom because of the lower traffic and specific problems (it is in a rural area with conservation land all around and tons of animals).  He put us in contact with the airport manager and that was when the email came back.... they knew First Lego League.  Not only that - the MC for the big Eastern conference FTC events and Worlds - was the staff's best friend and in the field and had worked there.  And that guy - he knows my older team and loves them (he is a great guy).  So they were more than happy to help us.  What luck!!

One of the first prototypes of a tall man.  They made
14 versions getting the science right.  Lots of wiring,
learning about Renyolds number, turbulent behavior
inside of a tube, etc.  They sewed and build them.
Well - the kids got to work!!  I am pretty sure they are the only kids on earth who have read the 96-page FAA manual on wildlife management with stats (and gory pictures) of all the wildlife accidents in the last decade.  We projected it on my wall and had a blast investigating how many deer strikes and alligator strikes there have been.  What??  And what about that salmon that almost brought down an airship in Alaska?  Dropped by a freaked bird.  We learned sooo much amongst so much laughter at the dry way such freak and common occurrences were discussed.

Yet another variable for testing.  Note the
sugar fueled work session - had to tell
that parent not to bring candy bars again! HA HA
They already had seen a video on CNN about something we could use when they had been searching and watching the Miracle-on-the-Hudson coverage regarding the movie.  They had put two-and-two together and realized that those wiggly 'tall men' you see at car dealerships were starting to be tested as a way to scare birds away in fields as an active scarecrow.  So could we take this concept to the airfield??  We made our first meeting with the airport and went to work making a first prototype to show them.  There isn't a recipe.  They learned tons of aerodynamics and fluid flow to do this. And you can imagine how much FUN they had with the dancing tubes once we started getting it right.

So they did their research and talked to the USDA funded researchers at several universities and
looked at their bird data regarding some experiments in fruit fields.  They got it all together and their first working prototype and headed off to the airfield for a meeting.  We learned that dealing with animals on airfields is one of the areas that is most innovative and not so heavily regulated (other than a basic committee that has to approve of tests because they need more good solutions).  The challenge is so difficult that they need an enormous tool kits of methods to permanently rid or momentarily scatter wildlife and they were very, very interested in the kid's idea as it hit many buttons on their list and had never been tried - we had a full conference room of airport executives!

Getting into motion sensors and re-wiring some of the
circuit boards so we could use it for our device
So the kids went back to work with many improvement suggestions from the staff to make it worthy of use and useful for the situations they come against.  Lots of technical issues to solve - such as making them trigger when needed so the animals wouldn't get used to it and it become ignored.  So the kids learned all about motion sensors and IR signals and how these filter out animals which we wanted to detect.  We spent weeks with our neighbor's bird feeder rigged up with cheep sensors (that can't distinguish between people and animals) and a game camera strapped to a tree (suggested by our USDA helper).  That was hilarious every day to go over the pictures of freaked out birds, freaked out lawn mower guys and once a freaked out mom when they triggered our wacky moving tube.

So once we proved out some systems, we needed a full scale test to show the airbase feasibility so it could go up the next level there and we started searching for a field where flocks of birds routinely gathered AND they would let us set up our device.  Surprisingly hard. The city absolutely refused all public spaces and told me they would take up charges if I did it.  Pretty short sighted, it was a kid's science project for gosh sakes!  The private golf course wasn't having problems yet - no birds.  The farms were skeptical and afraid of technology.  Finally, we settled on a school soccer field that was not visible to the road and had Canadian geese problems - early in the morning where we would likely not get caught by the local police.  A few mornings I got up at the crack of dawn and checked it out - they were reliably there by day break and gone by 8am when school started.  So the team made plans to illegally set up and scare the birds on the weekends.

So for one long holiday weekend - me and the robot kids got up at 5 am and went out to the school and unloaded our gas generator (we needed the 110 V to create the power for a large enough one - something the kids did 14 prototypes with different fans, batteries, rewired sensors, etc with) and our tall man and sensor system.  We set up remote cameras and hid in areas with cameras.  It took us a few days to get set up and not scare away the subjects by our presence.  Finally the last morning - we got there BEFORE the geese did.  We were initially disappointed thinking they sleep there, but set up anyways.  Just before we were finished, the 'squadrons' started buzzing us and coming in from all directions.  Just amazing to see.  We scooted to our positions and not less than a few hundred Canadian geese landed. And then it happened.... our machine went off and we got the video of our lives!

It worked.  Not only did it work, it scattered them in a 100 foot radius away from the tall man.  Needless to say, the airport was THRILLED and they have taken up our work now to discuss with some companies how they can 'harden' the concept to be appropriate in outer areas of airfields and the work was reported on the informal database of USDA solution ideas.  

This was only 1/3 of the kids overall work for the season - the robot game and their teamwork/core values being the other 2/3.  But the project won them the Champion's Award (all around) at the Qualifier.  Unfortunately they were in the top few in the State with it - but not high enough to move on.

I think they have learned that they have to do better in their on-the-spot answering of questions - they are just too young to see where adults are headed when asking things.  That is why the 14-yr olds do a bit better.  So we have been taking them to public STEM events to demonstrate to get lots of on the spot Q&A experience in the last month.  And they will get older and better at understanding the questions next year.  Personally - I thought their project was a great one, they learned a tremendous amount, did a freakish amount of work (700+ hours) and I was so proud of them.  One of the things I was most proud of was how when I went to Winterthur to teach, they took charge and made their first drafts of their three judging presentations and did a great job.  They are getting to that point where I can say to a kid - 'you should include a slide on the metrics that make a good airfield device' and they can build it and choose the right information to put on it.  And they aren't even all 12 yet!


  1. Wow! I am so impressed with this whole concept - let alone the lengths these kids and yourself have gone to make this happen!

  2. Really impressive!! Congratulations to all.

  3. This is amazing and heartwarming and exciting and makes me want to stand up and cheer!