March 17, 2006 11:21 AM PST
If you give a bot a basketball...
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To compete, teams must pony up $6,000 for registration and any other amount up to $3,500 needed to augment the initial supplies. Once registered, the teams are given three boxes of hardware and software, including motors, wheels, a transmission and a radio controller and control board. They are given engineering software and a programming language called Easy C that allows them to write a program for the robot's onboard computer.
Also included is Autodesk's 3D Max Studio animation software so the teens can create a 30-second animation on the subject of ideas. Kids are also judged on their animation.
The game itself is roughly two minutes long, with two robots that are 2 feet wide by 4 feet high on the field. For the first 10 seconds, the robots must run in autonomous mode and make as many baskets as possible. The robot with the most points from the first 10 seconds then gets to play offense, while the team runs it by radio control. The other bot plays defense.
"This game is more challenging than most," said Jim Beck, regional director for the game and an employee of NASA Ames Research, which has been involved with the event since 1998. NASA is sponsoring two teams at this year's contest--the Space Cookies and the Cheesy Poofs.
The Cheesy Poofs, a team of 40 from Bellerman High School in San Jose, are the Yankees of the Silicon Valley regional finals, having won the last seven years in a row. Justin Larente, a high school senior, said that his team's robot can shoot 15 balls into a hoop in four to five seconds with 100 percent accuracy. Still, the robots can only have 10 balls onboard at any one time during play.
"Our autonomous mode is our Achilles Heel," Larente said.
Winning bots will go on to duke it out at Atlanta's Georgia Dome at the international finals in April.
Ingenuity is a big factor. The Janksters, for example, pulled from the $10,000 donated by Google to buy and incorporate fishing line into the bot. They also used bicycle inner tubes to make a conveyor belt that can pick up the balls off the floor and put them into a queue for shooting. The girls sewed blue sheath fabric onto the robot.
But it seemed the Janksters' favorite experience of the competition was within the team's cold, dank workroom that had been converted from a garage in the maintenance wing of their school. They affectionately call it "the black hole."
"It's where we get our best ideas," said Bethany Nagid, a 15-year-old Jankster member with braces.
Sounds like Nagid's ready for her first Silicon Valley garage-based start-up.
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