Monday, December 5, 2011

Oklahoma student robotics teams' competition takes flight

A drone takes to the air as students from middle and high schools compete with flying drones at the University of Oklahoma's Rawl Engineering Practice Facility in Norman, OK, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. By Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

Student robotics teams from four states traveled Saturday to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to compete with autonomous flying drones.

Published: December 4, 2011

NORMAN — Educators have been using robots for years to get students interested in math, engineering and science at an early age, but one robotics program is taking the game to new heights.

The Kiss Institute for Practical Robotics rolled out its newest model on Saturday, an autonomous flying drone that students can fly around a classroom, through their halls and outside; all controlled by student-developed programming.

“We teach about 8,000 kids around the world how to program and build autonomous ground robots and they think that is cool,” said Steve Goodgame, executive director of the nonprofit institute. “But kids are absolutely fascinated by a flying robot. It's over-the-top cool.”

Goodgame said they introduced the drones to a select number of middle school and high school teams to pilot the program.

Four teams — two from Oklahoma, one from Texas and one from New Mexico — traveled Saturday to the University of Oklahoma in Norman for the first drone competition.

“For us, it's such a beautiful fit for Oklahoma; the push for autonomous robotics is there,” Goodgame said.

Aerial emphasis

In Lawton, there's the Oklahoma Training Center for Unmanned Systems, which is an 80-acre site with three landing strips.

Oklahoma State University next year will offer a graduate degree in unmanned aerial systems. And Tinker Air Force Base is the epicenter of aircraft repair for the U.S. Air Force.

“We've already got an Oklahoma-based program that's filling the pipelines for those jobs,” Goodgame said, noting the institute has been around since 1994, inspiring students to go into math and science fields. “These guys are ready to get into college or a technical school and we'll have the jobs for them.”

The institute is best known for Botball, its robotics competition, which in the past 17 years has become a nationwide competition with 240 teams in 18 regions.

Goodgame said that next year the aerial vehicle competition will be available for Botball teams.

He estimated it costs about $1,000 to start up a Botball team with equipment and programming software, and then the aircraft, which looks like a hovercraft with four horizontal propellers, is an additional $300.

He said traveling and competing in Botball matches is also an expense for the programs.

The institute promotes studies in science and mathematics for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

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