FIRST Team Builds an Oil-Skimming Robot
Kell Robotics competing in the FIRST robotics championship this weekend, but the team members also have built an oil-skimming bot to clean up streams and estuaries.
BY JESSICA WALSH
Kell Robotics came to the FIRST championship to put its basketball-playing robot to the test. But the team members brought along another of their clever creations: a model of their robot that could one day clean up streams.
In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began April 20, 2010, the team from Marietta, Ga., designed a remote-control, oil-skimming robot it calls ORCA, or Oil Recovery and Capture. The ORCA model on display at the FIRST championship in St. Louis, which is one-third the size of the real deal, looks a little like a tank with a long, wide conveyer belt projecting from the front, and a black-and-white design reminiscent of a killer whale.
Carlie Schulter, a Kell High School senior and the team's executive director, says the robot skims oil from shallow water with a rotating polyurethane belt that repels water but attracts oil. It then deposits the oil into the empty receptacle that makes up the body of the robot. The robot's water-friendly internal tread allows it to maneuver over obstacles such as driftwood, and movable flotation devices help it make depth adjustments. A solar panel on top recharges the robot at half the rate it expends energy.
Lemelson-MIT, a program that supports inventors, gave Kell Robotics an initial grant of $10,000 to work on the ORCA design. It named Kell Robotics one of its InvenTeamsresearch teams made up of high school students. In February, Schulter and teammate Matthew Tompkins were among about 100 students invited to the White House Science Fair to present their ideas.
The next step for the team is to build a training simulator for potential ORCA pilots, Schulter says. At the moment, ORCA pilots could potentially steer it from a half-mile away; the team would like to stretch that to 2 miles. ORCA won first place for student models and simulations at last year's Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Fla.
Although the government hasn't implemented ORCA's design, Schulter says Kell Robotics has stayed in contact with the EPA. For now, she says, "we plan on using it as a teaching tool." The team also created Corky, a robot that removes debris from standing water. Schulter says Kell Robotics has a standing invitation to use Corky at Lake Clara Meer in Atlanta's Piedmont Park.
This weekend's national FIRST competition was fun and games for Kell, but their other projects show they're serious about tackling some tough problems. Now that FIRST 2012 is over, Kell's team hopes to focus on finishing assembling the ORCA and to start testing it in an estuary by this summer.