(TNS) -- The potential designers and engineers of tomorrow's self-driving vehicles showed off their most promising work Saturday at the annual running of a popular autonomous robots competition.
More than 300 students from middle schools, high schools and colleges across Michigan participated in Robofest, the autonomous robotics festival put on by Lawrence Technological University.
The competition has grown in size since its first year in 1999 and has included teams from at least 13 states and countries including Brazil, China, Mexico, Singapore, France and nearby Canada.
Saturday's event was the state championship meet and featured 93 teams. The day's highest-scoring 15 teams will go to the Robofest World Championships next month in St. Pete Beach, Fla.
The overall goal is to encourage students to master principles in science, technology, engineering, math and computer science.
Robofest founder CJ Chung, a math and computer science professor at Lawrence Tech, said he wants to see these Michigan students someday help Michigan companies compete in the war for talent in emerging high-tech fields, such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence.
“I think it’s time to regain our potential by providing more software developers and artificial intelligence developers," he said. “Many companies are looking for software developers for autonomous-driving vehicles, so we are creating a pipeline of developers. We should not lose the title of automotive capital.”
One of the competition's stars on Saturday was Nathaniel Lee, 18, of Detroit, who will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this fall. He is a senior at the private Roeper School where, along with freshman Steven Raphael, 14, he created one of the most complex home-brewed robots on display.
Lee has taken part in Robofest since his eighth-grade year at the former Friends School in Detroit. He credits his grandmother with sparking his interest in robotics when she gave him a subscription to Make: magazine, which features many do-it-yourself projects.
Their mobile robot contained its own unique electronics and circuit boards (no off-the-shelf controllers) and made use of laser-cut wooden parts. It had the ability to see and maneuver around the obstacles in its path during the competition — no input needed from humans.
“It uses an ultrasonic distance sensor that sends out an ultrasonic pulse, and then it reads how long it takes for that pulse to come back to it," Lee explained.
Unfortunately, their robot failed to hit a ping pong ball through a football-like goal, a key task for Saturday's competition. Lee attributed that difficulty to the hard challenge of reprogramming their machine in just 30 minutes to the surprise setup of this year's robot competition board.
"We struggled a bit today," he said.
A young team from Parkway Christian School in Sterling Heights earned applause from the audience when their robot successfully swung its pencil to hit the ping pong ball, which was perched atop a Dasani water bottle. Few teams could make it that far.
The robot belonged to Meghan O'Kane, 13, and Guppi Bryant, 14, who began work on it in December with an after-school club at Parkway Christian.
"It was hard at times, but we've been doing this for a few years, so we know how to do it," Guppi said.
Event organizers said about 30% of Robofest participants are girls, a figure they would like to increase.
©2017 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.