Think of designing and building robots and what comes to mind? Data from “Star Trek,” R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” the evil machines from the “Terminator” movies or booze-swilling Bender from “Futurama.”
Not even close. RoboRAVE International is more about creating machines that resemble Erector sets and Legos, to perform tasks and win challenges, while teaching students about science, technology, engineering and math.
About 1,350 young people representing 20 countries are participating in the three-day event now going on at the Albuquerque Convention Center. They range from elementary school level through university students.
“We create a challenge and tell the participants, ‘You need to have a robot that can go and do this. This is the goal. This is where you start.’ But we don’t tell them how to build it or how to program it. We will assist, but the idea is to encourage innovation,” said Russ Fisher-Ives, the founder and global director of RoboRAVE International.
Fisher-Ives was teaching science and math at Rio Rancho High School when he put on the first RoboRAVE in 2001 with the participation of 25 students, mostly from Rio Rancho High School and Bernalillo High School. The event grew each year to become the global phenomenon it is today.
Last year, RoboRAVE International was held in Colombia, next year it will be in China, and in succeeding years Japan, Mexico and Spain.
A moment of silence was held during the opening ceremony Friday to honor the memory of 14-year-old Bashir Bello. The Nigerian teen traveled to Albuquerque to participate in RoboRAVE and tragically drowned Monday in the swimming pool at the Wyndham Hotel on Carlisle NE. Fisher-Ives said the Alpine Challenge, the event that Bello was to compete in, will be named in his memory from now on.
“These kids are learning things about sensors and code and mechanics. We want them to apply their science and technology and robotics, not just for competition, but to create new businesses and create new products.”
Sahar Barak, 16, and her “Dreamers” team from Afghanistan designed and built a working model of a robotic harvester machine that can cut, separate and bale wheat and other traditional crops. The high-tech piece of farm equipment uses artificial intelligence, solar power, sensors and cameras.
“Afghanistan is an agricultural country,” she said. “So this is for the farmers, our fathers, who have to cut the wheat by hand, and it’s for the children who have to work in the fields to help their families and now can stay in school.”
Rafael Hizon, 18, from the Philippines, showed off a software program on his computer that he designed to interface with any type of robot, and which does not rely on an internet connection. AVIS, or Astute Virtual Intelligence System, can be downloaded to any computer or platform, and works with most operating systems, he said.
“I had elementary students help me program it to show people that it’s so simple that even children can do it,” Hizon said.
A keyboard interface allows people who can’t hear or speak to interact with the robots.
A contingent of 50 participants from Colombia were participating in a variety of challenges.
Alejandro Martinez, one of the coaches, was working with a group on the Firefighting Challenge. They hovered over short tower-like robots that wheeled around a course where pedestals with burning candles were lit. Light and heat sensors on the robots guided them to the pedestals where fans atop the robots suddenly whirred to life and extinguished the flame.
While these might not have practical application for, say, a wildfire in New Mexico, Martinez still has lofty goals.
“We would like to improve the world and promote new challenges in science and technology that lead to the development of new skills and new vocations,” he said.
Her name says it all. Happiness Edet, 13, from Nigeria, was all smiles while working with her robot in the Sumo Challenge. Three short, squat robots are set inside a ring where they find one another and attempt to push the opponents out of the ring, much like Sumo wrestlers.
“I’m really all about the technology and programming and computing and stuff like that,” she said. “I just really like it and think robots are cool.”
No doubt Bender would drink to that.