From the Executive Director's Desk: Get Ready for Robots!

This time of the year we are preparing for summer robotics programs for students, summer training for
educators including programming languages that provide fundamental communications for any robotic system. Many students around the state are preparing for national competitions in FIRST Robotics, BEST, VEX and many other competitions that require designing, building, and programming an autonomous robot to perform certain tasks within given constraints which could include time, materials, cost, size, and functionality. With mentoring from employees in the manufacturing industry, we hope these outreach initiatives enable team members/participants to gain increased awareness of technical careers involving robotics as well as the skills needed to become successful in those careers.

Indeed, robots have become ubiquitous in our society and an integral part of manufacturing. Robotics researchers around the country are pushing their robotic capabilities to the edge every day. Typically, researchers compete for funds by writing grant proposals to a government agency, foundation, or other organization. A long technical document defining previous successes, accomplishments, a research plan and anticipated results are funded based on the organization’s criteria.

In recent years, funding agencies have turned to research level competitions as a way to award funding.  This strategy focuses researchers on specific outcomes – just like student robotics competitions. There are distinct advantages for an organization to fund such a competition. All “proposals” focus on particular outcomes which drive innovation and bring together multiple approaches to the same problem. 

Currently DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) is running a Robotics Challenge (DRC)
for researchers. The competition recently held a semi-finalist round in south Florida where 17 teams from around the world competed. The top eight competitors received funding to continue to prepare for the final competition in December. The 25 member Florida based IHMC (Institute for Human Machine Cognition) placed second overall and first among the teams that elected to use the Atlas robot as a platform. The DRC design challenge is focused on developing robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters and meant to be extremely challenging. The first phase teams guided their robots through eight individual, physical tasks that tested mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception, and operator control mechanisms. The 2015 final will involve a set sequence of tasks and de-graded communications between the operators and the robots. We might say that DARPA is focusing research teams to “push the same envelope” with these competitions. 

The moral of the story is that robots are not just toys for the young, but important parts of our evolving
society now infiltrating our daily lives. Students who get interested in robotics can apply their interest to a large number of applications and find themselves employed in applied technologies, or manufacturing. There are related high wage and high skill technical jobs at many levels requiring technical degrees, associate and/or bachelor degrees. For those students who love student competitions, they might be able to continue to compete at these higher levels.

FLATE is proud to partner with IHMC, Ocala to offer summer robotics camps for students in that area. Campers also compete in four different challenges during the week-long camps. They too are driving innovation and “pushing their own envelopes” to make their Lego® based bots do the impossible. At the same time, students are building strong foundations for many life skills including creativity, teamwork, decision-making, and perseverance and troubleshooting skills. 

Continuing on this path, I encourage you to read more about our upcoming summer robotics camps for students and workshops for educators in this issue of the FLATE Focus. This being a special robotics edition, we also highlight our involvement in national robotics week that FLATE is hosting, and our extended Spring robotics outreach initiatives to local schools and students. We hope you enjoy the stories. As always send us your comments, questions and thoughts at news@fl-ate.org. Also check your answers to last month’s sTEm puzzle AND if you haven’t already, connect with us on LinkedIn!