Students who designed and built robots compete at the district FIRST Robotics Competition at Mount Olive High School on March 23. After receiving the competition challenge in January, students had six weeks to produce robots that could throw Frisbees... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FLANDERS, N.J. (May 2, 2013) -- Look under the hood of any student-designed robot and one would see whirring motors, nuts, bolts and a sprinkling of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

And one would fail to see the beating heart that brought the robot to life.

So what is the secret sauce that makes a robot accomplish marvels? That secret is (hold the yawns, please) committees.

While the coolness of a committee meeting pales in comparison to Frisbee-flinging robot technology, committees are critical to getting things done in industrial product development and in high school robotics competitions like the one held here March 23 at the Mount Olive High School.

At the competition, 36 high school teams, some with more than 100 members, brought the robots they had designed and built to compete in the FIRST Robotics District Event. FIRST means "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

The competition actually began on Jan. 2, when each team received a challenge called "Ultimate Ascent" to build a robot that could successfully maneuver, shoot Frisbees through various targets for points, and then climb on a pyramid-shaped structure.

Six weeks later, each teams' robots had to be ready and were "bagged and tagged," said Shahram Dabiri, who explained that the robots are sequestered to prevent further tinkering before the March 23 event. Dabiri is a Picatinny engineer who supports the Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium's STEM Outreach program at Picatinny Arsenal by mentoring students and other mentors.

In the six-week period that is known as the "build season," teams had to envision, design and construct robots using sensors to see targets and controls to position the robot, aim and launch the Frisbees. They had to select the right method of propulsion and power to energize components. The students had to work together to design and build a frame that provides stability and allows the various components to work together, according to Dabiri.

"Students aren't instructed how to build the robots," said Dabiri, "They are just given the challenge and six weeks later they need to produce a working robot. The teams have to work out how to do that."

Finally, on March 23, the robots were unpacked and taken to a "pit" where crews perform final preparations. The robots are then wheeled out to a fenced-in area in the school's gymnasium where each team's robotic performance was measured in three-on-three competitions.

Before the build season, the teams needed to have resources in place to act when they received their annual FIRST challenge: dollars obtained through sponsorships to purchase materials and the added manpower of new team members obtained through recruiting.

Thus, non-technical skills like marketing are critical to a team's success, according to Cassie Yauch a Kittatinny Regional High School sophomore who is a member of the Newton High School Robotics Team 3142, "Aperture."

Teams also operate with safety and environmental stewardship as top priorities. "The presence of compressed gas and flying objects are safety risks," said Aperture's Safety Officer Nick Aquilino, a senior. Battery acid is the top environmental risk related to his team's robot project, he explained.

"Robotics is one of the most diverse groups," said Yauch. "In high school there are a lot of cliques, but in robotics, everybody has to work as a team. If you don't work as a team, everything falls apart."

Aperture is comprised of several sub-teams, which are responsible for the primary functions of administration, project direction, business, visual arts, marketing, awards, safety and maintaining the Aperture web page:

Regarding the process of building robots, Dabiri said getting people with different needs and priorities to work together is always difficult. "There will be challenges. There will be disagreements. There will be problems. The thing is, you always have to keep things moving forward."

Leadership helps. Aperture is led by junior student captain, Tess Bugay, who describes herself as a "problem solver." As captain, Bugay said her job is to "(pull) together all of the different resources and skill sets and get them working together as a functioning team."

Bugay is in her fifth year as a robotics team competitor. Her first project as a Girl Scout involved mostly following instructions, although "you have to learn to work with other people's perspectives."

Bugay later got involved in FIRST Lego robotics competitions with the Girl Scouts while still in middle school. She later entered the Solar Sprint robotics challenge as a 8th grader, where she advanced to a national-level competition and placed first in two categories. After meeting the coach of the high school robotics team, she decided to join.

The later projects provided less instruction, allowed for far greater design freedom and involved more complex technology than her first Girl Scout project, she remembers.

With that latitude as a FIRST Robotics team captain, Bugay said her biggest challenge is finding the right balance between the more exciting, creative but risky ideas and the "keeping it basic" ideas that may be less exciting but are also less risky.

Bugay receives help from her mother and father, especially during the build season. When things get overwhelming, "we help her focus on how to prioritize her responsibilities." said Tess' father, John Bugay.

One of the most important aspects of team robot building is applying the professional techniques that mentors provide to students.

John Bugay, for example, said that Aperture focused this year on learning 3-D computer aided design to shorten the build time, and several students became proficient with the software.

John Bugay said he passes on mechanical knowledge he acquired when he earned a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. With student robotics, he also applies the project management skills that he uses at work.

"They don't teach project management in high school," observed Dabiri, who explained that the knowledge void is filled by mentors like John Bugay who come from industry, including some who work in research or engineering fields. Picatinny engineers also mentor 13 local robotics teams.

Project management is about getting performance during a complex project on schedule and within budget with the available resources. "Everything you ever learned in project management school you apply in robot building," said Dabiri.

"(Aperture) is run as you run a project," said Stacey Yauch, Cassie's mother, an Aperture mentor who works for the U.S. Army Armament Research Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal.

"They all work similar to project managers in the Army," said Stacey Yauch. "They have leaders. Their design teams meet with strategy teams. They set schedules. There are IPTs and sub IPTs." The acronym "IPT" stands for either integrated product team or integrated process team.

The IPT is a committee approach for problem-solving when teams from several disciplines work concurrently on projects that will eventually form a collective whole. IPTs feature prominently in project management training and leverage a principle that all of the teams are collectively responsible for the results, according to Dabiri.

In May 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry directed that Department of Defense programs operate using the integrated product or process team principle as part of an acquisition reform initiative. The techniques had been used successfully in private industry and the reform was intended to emulate the results that industry was achieving in customer focus and cost savings.

"The mentor is there to help the team function as an IPT," said Dabiri. Their workplace experience bringing complex projects together is usually more important than what they know about a particular technology, Dabiri said of mentors.

"We even mirror that on our side," Dabiri said about how his office interacts with the Picatinny mentors. "We get our mentors together as an IPT once a week to figure out how we can apply our resources to best help the teams."

"That's the secret to robotics," said Dabari. "It's bringing teamwork to an altogether higher level."

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