Daily Press Article
Nothing Nerdy About Twisted Bots
A team of teenagers earned best-in-show at a state robotics competition.
By NICOLAS ZIMMERMAN | 247-4760 December 4, 2007
GLOUCESTER - Although they spend their weeknights dishing on servos and gear ratios, these aren't your standard-issue geeks.
"We don't have pencils behind our ears, and we don't wear pocket protectors," said Brandon Williams, 17, a home-schooled senior from Gloucester who one day hopes to fly planes.
Carson Towne, 15, of Mathews put it another way: "We build big metal things that attack other things. What's nerdy about that?"
The two are proud members of the Twisted Bots, a six-person robotics team composed of home-schooled Middle Peninsula teenagers that earned top prize Saturday at the state's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge, held at the University of Virginia. The team bested 45 others to earn a berth at the North American championship, scheduled for April 17-19 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
In its fourth year, the FIRST competition aims to get young people interested in science and technology, said Darlene Pantaleo, the state tournament director.
"It's designed after a sporting event to change peoples' mind set, because everyone looks at sports as 'it,'" she said. "We want people to look at the kids that are not athletic, that are not into sports, in a different light — to know that technology and science are as important, if not more important, than athletics."
Each year teams compete in a different "challenge" with new rules, and teams are given about 10 weeks to build their robots using off-the-shelf robotics kits. The Twisted Bots, a name the Mid-Pen team chose because it sounded "rock 'n' roll," spent about $800 on theirs, said Julia Thompson, 15, whose parents, Jon and Brenda, donated the use of their Gloucester basement as a workshop.
Jon Thompson is a mechanical engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, and his wife teaches the couple's two school-aged children. The Thompsons also sponsor a team on the junior circuit, which builds smaller robots out of Legos. That team finished second at a regional competition last month and will compete in the state championship at James Madison University this weekend.
At least twice a week since September, and sometimes every night, the six teenagers congregated in the Thompson basement to design a robot powerful enough to move around heavy objects and nimble enough to lift small rings and place them onto PVC posts.
The team had a breakthrough about six weeks in when its robot picked up its first ring, said Dylan Burton, 14, of Gloucester. Most teams relied on a mechanical arm, similar to a crane's boom, to pick up the rings. "That was too slow and too top-heavy," Julia Thompson said.
Caleb Taylor, of King and Queen County, and Sawyer Towne, Carson's older brother, round out the team.
The Twisted Bots solved the problem with a sloped, treaded conveyor belt that gently shimmies a ring off the ground, slides it up into the air and then drops it onto a waiting post behind it. Their robot, which is steered by radio using a hand-held controller, weighs about 10 pounds and is made of steel, aluminum and rubber.
Though Jon Thompson leaves home at 6 a.m., gets home at 4 p.m., then spends most weeknights shuttling between robot teams in his basement, he said he isn't burned out — yet. "Every year around this time, we say, 'Maybe this will be the last year.' But then we sign back up," he said. "I have a ball doing it. These kinds of challenges are just a lot of fun."
To help sponsor the team's trip to Atlanta, call the Thompsons at 804-693-2827