NEWPORT, R.I. – Well before the fall semester’s first meeting of the Applied Technologies Club was officially called to order (‘order’ being a relative term), the ideas were already flying around the room.
Students were still trickling into O’Hare 262 and the club’s advisor, Dr. Michael Thombs, had a remote-controlled, motorized box kite spinning its way toward the suspended ceiling panels. Seniors Francis McNulty and Dan Amaral, both business majors, each took a turn piloting the kite – which was still in need of repairs after Salve’s mail services assistant supervisor Rex Byrd bent the frame and snapped the helicopter blade when he crashed it into the Cliff Walk rocks during an earlier test flight.
Good pilots are hard to find, but Thombs sees potential in students who have gaming experience. A good pilot will be critical in helping the club accomplish another item on their agenda: to be “first in flight” during next spring’s international Robo Games competition in San Mateo, Calif.
For a decade now, Salve Regina students, faculty and staff have been involved in robotic battle competitions – initially known as Battlebots, but now known as Combots (short for combat robots). The competitions pit two robots head-to-head in a 40-foot by 40-foot by 9-foot-high specially engineered bullet-proof Plexiglas arena where the goal, quite simply, is to destroy the opponent.
The Salve contingency, members of the East Coast Robotics team, have performed well in these events and at the international competitions, where they’ve fought their way to a 2-2 record in four matches. Thombs serves as a competition judge and Byrd as a “wrangler,” helping to build the arenas and “put out fires” where needed.
Performing well is one thing. Thombs wants to make history.
“I’m getting sick of this ground combat. It’s time somebody took to the air,” he said, grabbing hold of the "hexicopter," a robot that looks curiously like a bicycle wheel wrapped in a hula hoop. A closer inspection reveals that this device is equipped with six helicopter blades, with every other blade spinning in the opposite direction to eliminate the need for a tail to keep it flying straight. The hula hoop provides a temporary shield to protect the blades from snapping when the robot knocks into things during testing.
To fly it, a computer sends independently controlled pulse with modulation power to each of the six helicopter motors that are of the 3-phase brushless type to prevent burnout. The controller has three gyros on it to control rolling, dipping and yawing. Powered by lithium ion polymers, the team is hoping to run 70 amps for three minutes of competition. In laymen’s terms, that’s a lot of juice.
But Thombs doesn’t expect the robot will need three minutes to destroy its competition once Phase II is completed, which is the current focus of the team. Phase II is to install a 16-ounce propane tank equipped with an electric switch and an igniter to throw out a huge plume of fire in order to roast the competition.
“So we can go in against 220-pound robots with this 51/2-pound robot and have a good chance of winning,” Thombs said. “This is very, very new. When we enlist six helicopter blades we have enough pulling power to actually lift a weapon. This will be the first Combot robot in flight. We will be the Wright brothers of combat robots.”
Flight is a common theme for the Applied Technologies club this semester. Another item on their agenda was for students to toss around ideas to submit for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Educational Flight Program. Unfortunately, the comprehensive proposal guidelines didn’t leave the students with enough time to meet the end-of-October deadline, but students may continue to develop their ideas for the future.
The NASA program invites teachers and students to propose, design, build, test and fly a microgravity experiment aboard its microgravity aircraft. The RGEFP selects research teams of students and educators dedicated to enhancing their science and technical knowledge to conduct their experiments aboard the aircraft as it banks zero-gravity turns somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. The program is based out of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and flies selected research teams out of Ellington Field.
One proposal, McNulty explained, is “Space Art,” in which an enclosed, clear case will be equipped with paint and a canvas to produce Jackson Pollack-like splatter art at zero-gravity. Researches can study the mathematics behind zero-gravity paint splattering patterns, but what McNulty says would make the proposal interesting to NASA is its marketability.
“They can make a lot of money from people wanting to buy this art,” he said.
Another NASA proposal students considered was testing to see if a computer hard drive requires more or less energy when spinning at zero gravity. The experiment could apply to energy consumption concerns during deep space flights. Students also considered zero gravity proposals to test intravenous properties, a “takedown” experiment applicable to space crime and security, and a gaming experiment.
“We know we’re not the leader in technology but we are thinking outside of the box,” Thombs said. “And this is what will attract the eye of NASA.”