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Yippee for Grippee: Teens’ bot impresses

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Joey Stills of the Gorillas robotic team is about to snatch a box that Grippee tosses to him. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The Gorillas demonstrated the 110-pound robot they entered in area competition this spring. Grippee the Hanging Cube Grabber has a reach of seven feet. Grippee can get to boxes, lift, move and release them.

Grippee’s most showy maneuver at the tech fair was picking up a box, then tossing it to a waiting Gorilla member who caught it.

“It felt great to see that it actually works,” Joey Stills, who caught the box, said of the project’s defining moment. Stills, who will be in tenth grade this fall, and incoming junior Jayce Buis both go to North Henderson. They were operating the robot and among Gorillas around, when The Tribune came by for much of the tech fair. Jarron Marshall of HHS was also there.

Austin Hudson, now a Hendersonville High senior, was Grippee’s “driver” or control operator back in competition.

The Gorillas opted for soft silicon spinning wheels as robot hands, for extra grip on boxes it grabs and dispenses. Buis, a main designer of the arm, said a bold simplification was from two arms to one heavy-duty arm with a large hand plate of wheels.

To ensure endurance, the team put on a 32-gallon air tank so the hydraulic lifting lasts longer than needed in a competition. This relates to pneumatics, about pressurized air in a compressor. Sizing electric and compressor units big enough to work but small enough to fit and lighter weight is among balancing acts.

FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) since 1992 has held robotics competitions at various levels, for manufacturing robotic tasks and between high school teams. Two Michigan squads were part of the four-team coalition that won a global title in late April. There were initially 3,647 teams from 27 nations. Non-profit FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

The Gorillas have excelled in district meets. The Gorillas won the N.C. regional title in 2015, and earned the Excellence in Engineering Award. Borg Warner design engineer Mike Murphy was their lead mentor. The Gorillas was founded by Dr. Helen Owen and East Physics teacher Tom Patten.

There is teamwork among Gorilla members, and beyond that is a three-on-three “alliance” during competition. The Gorillas and two other teams were in allied, avoiding each other while matched against three other teams in a three-minute session. The object was to move as many boxes to the specified area as they could, in that time limit.

The students are intrigued by mechatronics — mechanical and electrical engineering, and computer science such as software design. The youths foresee various uses of their robot-related tech skills.

West Henderson’s Donald Shrader, an incoming junior, said his dream job is to use a robot to “explore the depths of the ocean.”

Buis eyes a career in designing robotics prosthetics — artificial limbs getting designed better and programmed for more precise motion and wider capabilities. He said a key is linking “muscle impulse” signals from the person to a receptor in the robotic limb, to do such tasks as picking up a glass of water. The basic mechanics is a motor moving a cable attached to grabbing devices.

For FRC each team has six weeks to design, build and demonstrate a remote-controlled robot that weighs up to 120 pounds and is powered by a 12-volt battery. Students start with a kit and standard-shaped chassis. The coach and adult mentors said they typically help as minimally as needed.

The ultimate goal is for the robot of each team to do a specified function that varies each year. FRA notes on its website the tasks include throwing balls or discs into goals, hanging inner tubes on bars, the robot hanging onto a bar or balancing on a beam.

When winning the N.C. region in ’15, the common task was to stack plastic containers on platforms, top the stacks with recycling bins, then dispose of foam litter noodles. The Gorillas earned the best offensive power rating, as they stacked the most containers and most recycling bins.

In 2016-17 the challenge was a robot that climbs and transports gears. The Gorillas developed a nimble one that can move in multiple directions at once, such as reversing to the right.

Then last year the robot had to sweep floors, such as in a school gym. The 60-pound square bot of the Gorillas then is three by three feet, with no exterior. Thus its components, wiring and gears are exposed.

Combat and other robots are so maneuverable they can spin, roll and evade pursuers.

Many of mechatronic robotic devices do not rely on manual control. Instead, they can “solve problems” on their own using sensors, processing signals into activity.

For instance, Gorillas mentor Paul Freeman said that in the local GE Lighting facility sensory robotics is used to shut down equipment to avoid accidents.

“Students work closely with and learn from these ‘stars’ of the engineering world,” FRC stated. “Students gain maturity, build self-confidence, learn teamwork, and gain an understanding of professionalism. Students have fun, while building a network of friends and professional mentors who enrich their lives.”

Freeman, a West 2011 grad and former Gorilla, does engineering for G.E. He earned a two-year degree in mechatronics from BRCC. He said design and programming of industrial robots is steadily advancing in industrial usage and thus as a career field in substantial demand.

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