High School Wins Awards for Animation in Robotics Contest

Anyone who thinks learning canít be fun should visit the team of Walnut Hills High School students and their corporate sponsors from Procter & Gamble as they prepare for the annual U.S. FIRST engineering competition for high school students. "Itís definitely a highlight of the year for us," says Jim Tobin, an engineer with P&G in Cincinnati. "People look forward to it for months."

U.S. FIRST involves working with a team to design and build a robot. In April, teams from around the country descend on Disney World in Florida for a double-elimination, robot versus robot competition.

The P&G/Walnut Hills High School team won the overall competition in 1994 and the Honeywell Leadership in Control Award in 1995. In 1996, the team won the Chairmanís Award for demonstrating the best working relationship between the company and high school, and the brand new Autodesk Judgeís Award for Engineering Creativity and Communication. The latter is awarded on the basis of a 30-second animation that needs to meet a variety of criteria including a creative story that displays how the robot works. "The goal is to get students using design tools and to come up with a creative, fun way to communicate what the team has built," Tobin says.

CAD and 3D Design Become Integral

As heads of the animation team, Tobin and P&G co-worker Brian Cootway had to teach students enough about CAD for them to be productive, then design and execute the animation in less than six weeks.

Tobin approached the challenge realistically. First, he chose CAD software that gave students all the design power they needed, but with a simple, intuitive user interface. He chose 3D/EYEís TriSpectives software for 3D design, and Autodeskís 3D Studio to animate it.

3D/EYEís TriSpectives software was easy for novice CAD designers from Walnut Hills High School to use. Templates of basic shapes (along the right hand side of the screen) allow users to quickly and easily introduce complex geometry in a project, then customize it for the project at hand.

Eight Walnut Hills students attended classes at Procter & Gamble to learn CAD and animation basics before the competition began. Classes met for two hours each on Thursdays and Saturdays. Getting students interested in being on the CAD animation team was a snap. Tobin loaded TriSpectives software onto a laptop, went to Walnut Hills and demonstrated basic CAD techniques. Recalls student Amy Fluharty, "When Jim came to our school, I watched the demo and thought, ëWow ... thatís amazing. How can we ever learn to do that?í But now we all know how to do everything he showed us, and it d'esnít seem like a big deal anymore."

Students produced the geometry for their robot in 3D/EYEís TriSpectives software, then imported it into Autodesk's 3D studio to color and animate it.

Tobin says he chose TriSpectives and 3D Studio specifically for their ease of use. "One of our goals on the animation team was to make sure the students were very involved, so the animation really is their work, not ours," he explains. "It was important to give them tools they could learn and master quickly -- especially since we donít require the kids to know anything about computers when we start out. Five members of the animation team had no computer experience coming into this."

Powerful Software Supplies a Big Assist

After U.S. FIRST sent out this yearís rules, the team quickly put the dimensions of the playing field on the computer and began brainstorming ideas. The entire Walnut Hills/P&G team split up into four prototyping teams, each with two animation team students providing CAD support.

"We came up with so many ideas, but as soon as we laid them out in CAD and looked at the geometry, we could see that many of them werenít feasible," says student team member Matt Rece. "We could eliminate a lot of ideas faster than the engineers could prototype them."

How did they learn such powerful CAD techniques so quickly? By letting the software do the work. In TriSpectives, for example, a feature called IntelliShapes provides ready-to-use templates of basic shapes. For example, take a cube. Normally to design a cube, the user would draw each line, or draw a box and extrude it to three dimensions. With IntelliShapes, the user simply g'es to an onscreen catalog of shapes, clicks on the cube, and drags it onto the screen. From there, the user can assign dimensions, or customize the shape as needed.

"Students see that, and they say, ëI can do that!í" Tobin says enthusiastically. "It makes the whole process seem within their grasp."

Amy Fluharty creates a piece for Operation Orangeís robot, using 3D/EYEís TriSpectives software, as KaNeeTa Kimble looks on.

The team of 24 students and over 30 Procter & Gamble employees -- named "Operation Orange" for their P&G sponsor, Sunny Delight -- included several groups: a strategy team, a robot-building team, a Chairman's Award team, an analytical team, and of course, the animation team. After the group had determined the basics of the robotís design, the animation group began its work.

Animation Takes the Robot's View

From the start, the animation team wanted to incorporate a heads-up display in the presentation, giving viewers the robotís point of view. The finished animation starts with a wooden crate dropping via parachute from a plane. The crate breaks open to reveal the robot. Then the animation switches to the heads-up display. As the robot looks toward the playing field, the display shows the robotís three objectives: Score, Win and Eliminate Opponents. The animation shows the robot knocking the competitionís balls out of the goal, scoring and then, to Eliminate Opponents, it self-destructs.

"This was an intensive project," Tobin explains. "The students were coming up with all of these wild ideas about having the heads-up display and blowing up the robot, all of which they wanted to do in 30 seconds of animation." Tobin didnít do anything to reduce their ambition or enthusiasm, though. "I really thought that the animation was an opportunity for the students to do everything themselves. Building the robot involves a lot of input from the engineers. But with the animation, Brian and I told the students, ëYou can put anything into this that you want. Donít ask if you can do something; try it!í"

They broke up into small work groups. Some students worked on the goal, some worked on the human player station, others concentrated on the robot itself. The eight students used four Pentium computers to work on different aspects of their plan. After several sessions, they had drawn the basic components in 3D, using TriSpectives.

The biggest challenge for the CAD team was reproducing the robot, given its complexity. The robot includes a complex railing system to transport small balls, a large arm to pick up a large ball, and several other distinctive features. Making the balls roll smoothly in the animation was also difficult.

For its CAD design, the team employed four Compaq 5100 computers (with 100 MHz Pentium chips and 32MB of RAM each) networked together using Windows NT. Once the team had created the basic geometry, it exported the drawings to 3D Studio to add color, texture, motion and lighting.

When it came time to create 900 frames of animation, however, the group had to turn to some outside resources. "Even with the Pentiums, it would take us a week to make the renderings," Tobin explains. Instead, the group turned over the animation files to SAEC Kinetic Vision, Inc., which did the renderings on three Silicon Graphics workstations.

Halfway through the six-week competition, an engineer on the robot-building team approached Tobin and said they needed to re-design a part for the robotís ball pick-up system. The students quickly designed it in TriSpectives; then P&G employees transferred the data into the companyís CNC machining system, and the students watched as the part they had designed was physically produced.

More Than Just Memories

Today, with 1996ís U.S. FIRST competition behind them, the Walnut Hills High School students have more than just memories of an interesting project. Senior Matt Rece landed a summer internship working with U.S. FIRST founder Dean Kamen doing animation work for ESPN footage of the event. He used TriSpectives and 3D Studio MAX (the newest version of 3D Studio) in working on this project. Junior KaNeeTa Kimble and senior Julie Pack have decided they would like to pursue an education in mechanical engineering.

Members of the Operation Orange animation team include (standing, from left) Matthew Rece, Julienne Pack, Brian Cootway (a P&G engineer), Debbie Engle, Amy Fluharty, and Jim Tobin (a P&G engineer). Seated are Philbert Abellera, Darryn Fessel and KaNeeTa Kimble.

Andrea H'ekstra said she just wanted some computer experience -- and got more than she bargained for. "I never really worked with computers before, and when I saw this, I thought, this is a chance for me to get some experience. I never imagined being able to do the things we can do now."

U.S. FIRST Competition Plants Seeds of Interest for Future Engineers, Designers

U.S. FIRST provides an exciting, hands-on introduction to the world of engineering for thousands of high school students nationwide. The annual competition, founded a few years ago by inventor/entrepreneur Dean Kamen of Manchester, N.H., pits teams of students and their corporate sponsors in a competition to design and built a robot.

Teams are formed in late winter, receive the rules defining that yearís competition and a standard toolkit, and begin work on their robot. They spend an intensive six weeks developing their robot and competitive strategy. Then in April, the teams descend on Disney World in Florida for a double-elimination, robot vs. robot competition. The teams compete in a spirited, no-holds-barred tournament complete with referees, cheerleaders and time clocks.

Members of the animation team examined the Operation Orange robot prior to the national competition in Orlando. Looking on are Darryn Fessel, P&G engineer Jim Tobin, Amy Fluharty and Julienne Pack.

The 1996 competition involved having the remote-control robots collect two sizes of balls and deposit them in a wooden goal, all on a 34-foot diameter playing field. In designing their robots, teams developed both offensive and defensive strategies: offensive strategies to score points with their own balls, and defensive strategies to prevent the other teams from doing so.

For students, the attraction is obvious: becoming part of a team, working hand-in-hand with accomplished professionals, the competition itself and, of course, a trip to Disney World! But the corporate sponsors benefit every bit as much, says Jim Tobin, an engineer with Procter & Gamble.

"Thereís a very real belief at P&G that weíre investing in our future by participating in U.S. FIRST," he explains. "We need to build interest in engineering and design among students, and this has proved to be an incredibly effective tool for doing that." (The FIRST in U.S. FIRST, incidentally, stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)

Major sponsors of the competition include P&G, which sponsors the competitionís Creativity Award; Motorola, which sponsors the Quality Award; and Honeywell, which gives the Leadership in Control Award. The Autodesk Judgeís Award for Engineering Creativity and Communication was added to U.S. FIRST in 1996.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.