Students get ready to release the kraken in robot games

Cayman Compass

The kraken is a mythical monster capable of devouring whales and whole ships. The Kraken built by a team of Cayman Islands science students is somewhat less dangerous.

Slightly smaller than a folding chair, the robotic vehicle, designed to pick up and transport small cardboard cubes, is not going to hurt anyone. But its designers are hoping it will crush the competition at this month’s “FIRST Global Challenge” in Mexico City.

The technological contest will pit students from more than 180 countries against one another. Winning not only involves being able to speedily maneuver and deposit cardboard cargo and mock solar panels, but finding ways to efficiently work with other teams and their robots.

This is the second year of the global competition and the first in which the Cayman Islands has sent a team. Glenda McTaggart, education programs manager for Dart Enterprises, which is sponsoring the team, said Cayman squeaked in as a last-minute addition. She had contacted the organization seeking information about next year’s contest.

“They said, ‘Do you think you could put a team together for this year?’” she said.

That was in late June. The event is Aug. 16-18 and many of the other teams in the contest have been working on their robots since April.

Ms. McTaggart said a three-student team was quickly assembled on the basis of science grades. For the past month, its members have worked eight hours a day, four days a week to come up with … the Kraken.

Powered by electric motors and driven with game controllers via a computer program run off an iPad, the Kraken whines and whirs as it runs across the low carpet in an office in the Regatta Business Park Thursday. It’s a tiny modified cherry picker with a few James Bond-type accessories and, seemingly, a significant amount of attitude.

A few weeks ago, it was just a cargo box full of components – wheels, wiring, servo motors, aluminum tubing and more – sent from the competition’s organizers.

“They don’t give you any instructions on how to build your own model,” said Ethan Cronier, 16, a student at St. Ignatius High School and the team member credited with the basic design. “I was looking on the road to see different [work vehicles] and I saw a cherry picker and thought, ‘That’s a good design.’”

The rough model of the robot came together pretty quickly, the team said. But it required a lot of tweaking, such as adjusting the gear placement, redistributing the weight to keep the vehicle from doing wheelies, and adding support beams to stabilize the lifting arm. Von Abrantes, 28, a physics teacher at St. Ignatius High School, is the team’s coach. He said he’s impressed with what the students came up with.

“Initially, I thought, like a forklift,” he said, when looking at the design that might best address the tasks required, “but that would have a lot more moving parts. They did really well.”

Mr. Abrantes has coached students in the SeaPerch robotics program.

“This is a whole new level of technological application,” he said.

The students have had a chance to share information and chat socially with other teams via a software platform sponsored by the competition. Mr. Abrantes said sharing ideas is something regularly practiced in science.

“It’s a very friendly competition,” he said. “It’s what happens in the scientific community anyway.”

The students, he said, have learned a lot in the process.

Adrian Phillips-Hernaez, 14, of Cayman Prep, said he’s learned how important teamwork is.

“When you work together, you get things done much faster,” he said.

Both he and Ethan said they are planning careers in engineering and see a direct benefit from their work on the project. Joe Allom-Perez, 16, said he wants to do something in the entertainment field, but still thinks making the Kraken has been useful.

“I think robotics is going to be a major thing in the next generation, so it’s good to know about it,” he said.

All three students are confident about their chances.

“I think we’re going to win,” said Ethan, “or come really close.”

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