There is the kind of problem kids solve in maths class. And then there is the kind of problem they solve after maths class. For the nearly 300 000 students involved in FIRST programmes, founded by master inventor Dean Kamen, the latter isn’t homework – it’s a way of life. Each year the students spend countless hours building a path to robotic glory that culminates in a world championship in April. But given enough hardware, mentoring and ambitious challenges, it was only a matter of time before these engineers in training began patenting inventions of their own. – Jennifer Bogo
PDBot The US high school students on the Pink Team made bots only for the FIRST Robotics Competition – until their local police department asked if they had one to spare. In response, the students built a robot to spec. It can climb rugged terrain, deliver a negotiation phone, launch smoke grenades and conduct surveillance. “We were searching other police robots and were shocked by how much they cost for what they could do,” says Jason Schuler, a contract engineer for NASA, a team mentor and a FIRST alum. So the team filed a provisional patent for its PDBot and optimised the design for a kit that other teams can use to fundraise. “Instead of washing cars to raise money, they’ll be building robots,” Schuler says.
SMARTwheel The Inventioneers from New Hampshire had already filed three provisional patent applications by the time they created the SMARTwheel in response to a FIRST Lego League Challenge. “We found out car crashes were the No 1 cause of death for teens and texting was the main distraction,” says 11-year-old Bryeton Evarts. “We wanted to do something to stop that.” Their solution is a steering wheel cover that detects when a driver removes a hand for more than 3 seconds and emits visual and audio alerts. A data logger communicates unsafe driving behaviour in real time. Writing the utility patent application was 16-year-old Tristan Evarts’s favourite part: “You can conceptualise your idea, but until you have to list all its features on paper, you don’t fully understand what it is.”
Folding Forklift Last year, the Purple Gears had to build a robot that could lift batons from the top of a 56-cm dispenser for the FIRST Tech Challenge. The problem: their robot couldn’t be more than 450 mm high. “We couldn’t use hydraulics – that was another restriction,” says senior Ariana Keeling. So the high school students decided to construct a forklift that unfolds, then learned one had never been invented. On the utility patent application, they listed each team member’s contributions to the design. That taught them something else valuable, says mentor John Toebes, director of patents at Cisco: “Invention is not a solo act.” This year, the Purple Gears are filing for a second utility patent for a brand-new kind of wheel.
Web: To find out more about the FIRST Lego League, visit www.fllsa.org and to catch the PDBot in action go to Meet PDBot, the first generation of police robots made by high school students