Israeli teens turn ‘evil’ Dalek into good robot firefighter

Haifa team’s alien-turned-fireman wins top prize at one of the world’s leading robotics contests

The Haifa team shows off its Dalek firefighting robot (Photo credit: Haifa municipality)
The Haifa team shows off its Dalek firefighting robot (Photo credit: Haifa municipality)

Fans of the long-running Dr. Who TV series know that the Daleks are one of humanity’s greatest enemies. But a team from Haifa’s Ironi Gimmel school has veered a Dalek away from its usual drive to destroy humanity — converting it into a firefighter that can find the source of a blaze and, armed with a fire hose or fire extinguisher, help put it out or prevent it from spreading.

The 12th grade team, led by Felix Bachman, head of the school’s robotics program, was considered the surprise winner of the Trinity College Robot Contest, beating out the team from China, which Bachman said the Israelis thought were “unbeatable.”

In addition to the Firefighting High School Division award, Israelis came home with a slew of other awards, including the top slots in the Robotics Olympiad exam, which tests knowledge of the principles of robotics. Israelis and Israeli teams (Misgav High School and Ironi Gimel) won the top slots for individual and team knowledge in robotics.

The contest, held last weekend in Hartford, Connecticut, saw over 100 teams from the US, China, Indonesia, Israel, and elsewhere compete in one of the oldest and most respected robotics contests in the world. The contest, now in its 22nd year, has two components – the fire fighting contest, where the Israeli teams excelled, as well as RoboWaiter, where teams build assistive robots for individuals with disabilities (no Israeli teams entered that component of the contest).

Under the contest rules, robots must be autonomous; intelligent and sophisticated enough to operate on the their own, responding to external stimuli, which in the case of the firefighting consisted of responding to a fire alarm, navigating a maze, locating a flame, and extinguishing it in the shortest possible time.

Despite the worry among some in Israel that kids are not getting enough science education, Israeli teams have in recent years excelled in international contests and olympiads for math, science, chemistry, and robotics. Last summer, for example, Israel’s six-youth delegation to the International Mathematics Olympiad returned home bearing six medals for their performance in a contest that pitted them against representatives of 100 other countries in a test of math skills. The Israeli team snatched up five silver medals as well as one bronze at the Olympiad in Capetown, South Africa, completing six complicated math problems. In 2013, four Israeli teens won two silver and one bronze medal in the International Olympiad in Informatics, which tests kids’ knowledge of computer science. And that same year, students from Misgav High School in northern Israel won the Trinity grand prize – the BURP (Best Unified Robotics Performance) award – for their fire-fighting robot.

Commenting on his institution’s victory, Ironi Gimel principal Yehoshua Ben-Itamar said that the team’s accomplishments “are the result of hard work by the students, and the quality education we provide in the robotics electives in our school.” According to Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, the students and their teachers “are a source of pride for Haifa and for Israel. The accomplishments by the team in this contest are expressions of a desire to excel, to think strategically, and to work as part of a team. I expect that these students will achieve many great accomplishments in the future.”

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