Philly Robotics Expo seeks to inspire a new generation of robot-builders

Zachary Unkle (right) and Brenden Finn field questions about their Frisbee-throwing robot from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School students.
Zachary Unkle (right) and Brenden Finn field questions about their Frisbee-throwing robot from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School students. (PATRICK McPEAK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 24, 2013

Robots that can transfer plastic rings. Robots that can toss Frisbees into targets. Robots that can climb, swim, dance, or make music. Robots that can clean up a nuclear plant after a Fukushima-style disaster, sparing human beings the risk of radiation poisoning.

All were on display - or at least were the topic of hopeful discussion - at Monday's Philly Robotics Expo, a mix of demonstrations, classes, and presentations designed to whet the intellectual appetites of the next generation of robotics engineers and scientists.

Organized by Central High School's RoboLancers club and sponsored by Drexel University during Philly Tech Week, the show was a chance to witness progress in a field likely to change the world in decades ahead.

Much as children progress from simple language and tasks to complex ones, robotics has developed incrementally, as engineers learn to integrate software, cameras, actuators, and other devices so their creations can navigate terrain and manipulate objects.

School robotics competitions reflect that same progression. Among the robots on display Monday were devices created for two levels of the annual challenges created by Dean Kamen, inventor of the high-tech Segway scooter and founder of the nonprofit FIRST ("For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology").

The small robots that moved plastic rings were partly autonomous and partly remote-controlled, built by teams of middle schoolers and high schoolers competing in the organization's annual FIRST Tech Challenge.

The RoboLancers' larger robot, which weighs about 100 pounds, was built for the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students. This year's challenge: create a robot that can throw Frisbee-like discs through targets, then climb a pyramid to score extra points. But that robot was absent Monday. Instead, it was en route to FIRST's world competition this week in St. Louis, said Central teacher Daniel Ueda, the RoboLancers' coach.

Ueda said 32 students were due to leave Tuesday for the team's first trip to the event since the RoboLancers started 13 years ago, when any team could attend. This year, 400 will participate, among thousands of teams worldwide.

"It's a much bigger deal now," Ueda said. Other local invitees include Vulcan Robotics from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Bambie Botz from St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, and teams from Ambler, Flourtown, Downingtown, and Marlton.

Ueda said his team, which has about 100 active members, was invited as the winner of a regional "engineering inspiration" award, honored for such efforts as fostering other city schools' teams and organizing the three-year-old expo, whose other co-sponsors include Lego Education, Boeing and Villa, a Philadelphia clothing retailer.

There was plenty of evidence Monday of the RoboLancers' success at inspiration. Among those assisting Ueda's team were Eric Lam of South Philadelphia, a 2012 Central grad and Drexel engineering freshman who plans a career in the field.

"I just can't get out of robotics, because of him," Lam said of Ueda. "I love working with the hybrid of the hardware and software."

As a freshman, Lam has been working in Drexel's Scalable Autonomous Systems Lab, one of several research centers that focus on robotics. One project with which he has helped demonstrates how multiple tiny robots outfitted with cameras can be used to locate one another, and themselves, in space - one of the crucial, incremental steps for robots to do more complex tasks.

Computer engineer Youngmoo Kim, director of Drexel's Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory, said Drexel is part of a team of schools hoping to accelerate progress through a Robotics Challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the same federal agency that decades ago laid the groundwork for the Internet.

The broader DARPA challenge is to develop robots that could help with other human-caused or natural disasters. Kim said one of the goals is a robot that could perform a set of key tasks needed to clean up a Fukushima-type nuclear accident, including breaking down doors, climbing a ladder, getting into and driving a utility vehicle, and removing debris.

"There's no robot in the world that can do all of them right now. There are very few that could do even one of them," Kim said. "Their goal is a quantum leap in capabilities."

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, @jeffgelles, or Read his blog at

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