In the science fiction future, humans will communicate with small wireless devices, vacation on the moon, and have a bevy of robots at their beck and call. But science fiction sooner or later becomes science reality, and Israeli high-tech workers of tomorrow may very well be instrumental in building that robotic future.
That’s because thousands of students have been getting lots of experience building and developing robots, in preparation for two major robot contests. On Monday, over 4,000 students from high schools and junior highs throughout Israel gathered at Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv to show off over 100 robots in the Israeli finals of the FIRST Robotics Competition — with the four winners of two FRC contests to represent Israel at the World Robotics Competition in St. Louis, to be held at the end of April.
And last week dozens of schools from around the world participated in the Robotraffic competition, in which student groups from World ORT schools build robots designed to help enhance road safety.
A “robot” isn’t necessarily a silvery humanoid form with metal clasps for hands and antenna on the top of its head. Properly defined, a robot can be any mechanical device that is capable of carrying out preprogrammed tasks independently, or via a mechanism set into motion by a user. Robots already do a lot of our “dirty,” unskilled work — be it packing goods on assembly lines, or processing and separating trash into recyclable and non-recyclable components. They take on a myriad of other monotonous, repetitive and dead-end tasks that humans would rather not do, given a choice, and that trend is set to continue.
In the FIRST competition, students were given the task of building a robot device that would make life easier for the elderly, such as the one developed by students at the Aviv High School in Ra’anana: a special mechanized cane which, at the touch of a button, extends the length of the cane and releases a “claw” that allows users to grab items from the floor or far above their heads. The claw is manipulated by a mechanism on the cane.
Aviv, along with two other schools (Ish Shalom, Kfar Yonah, and Ironi Bet, Modiin), will represent Israel in the high school component of the St. Louis competition. A junior high team — Hayovel, in Yehud — will be representing Israel in the FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition in St. Louis. The challenge in that contest is to build a robot made out of Lego components only (except for the mechanism).
Meanwhile, a school from Ukraine won last week’s Robotraffic contest, held at the Technion. Sixty teams — mostly from Israel, but with 13 hailing from abroad, including Russia, Lithuania, and Argentina — competed in five different components of the contest. Each section stressed a different aspect of road and traffic safety. The top prize, presented in the category of safe driving, was awarded to the Or Avner school in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, which designed the best robotic car programmed to negotiate the streets of a model city, complete with traffic lights and obstacles. This is the second time in a row that the all-girls’ team from the Dnepropetrovsk school has won Robotraffic.
“This competition has become a highlight of World ORT’s activities and our partnership with the Technion is a milestone in our activities in Israel,” said Avi Ganon, CEO of World ORT’s Kadima Mada program in Israel, which, along with the Technion, ran the event. “It is a gathering of students from around the world with one common language — the language of technology.”
Robotraffic is important not only for the scientific and technological skills that students learn, Ganon said, but also because it brought teenagers to Israel, many of them for the first time. “This competition bridges the distance between Diaspora communities and Israel by creating bonds between students from ORT schools internationally and those Israeli schools that are affiliated with World ORT,” Ganon enthused. “I want to see teams from France and Italy, and more from eastern Europe and Latin America — ultimately I look forward to the day when every ORT country sends a group of students to this competition.”