Pittsburgh-Area Girls Gain Robot-Building Skills at Carnegie Mellon
PITTSBURGH—The robot-development skills of the Girls of Steel , a team of high-school-age girls from the Pittsburgh area, are being tested at the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship, April 23-26 in St. Louis, Mo. Several team members, however, already have put those skills to practical use in helping to build a robot for Autodesk , a leader in 3D design software.
Joining with technical staff members of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, six Girls of Steel worked on a tight schedule late last year to produce the “Autodesk ReCap Robot.” The wheeled robot employs Autodesk’s ReCap Pro software, which takes laser scanner data captured from interior spaces and automatically assembles the scans into 3D point clouds. The ReCap Robot debuted at Autodesk University 2013, the largest trade show for design and engineering professionals, with more than 9,000 attendees in Las Vegas.
“It was a unique experience,” said Rachel Round, a home-schooled senior from Harrison City, who built the sheet-metal housing that encloses the robot’s computer. The Girls of Steel team, now in its fourth year of participating in the FIRST competition, is supported by the Robotics Institute's Field Robotics Center and a number of business and foundation sponsors.
For FIRST, the girls do all of the work required to design and build a robot. For the ReCap Robot project, they were assigned tasks as part of a team that included professional roboticists and produced a robot that met professional standards.
“It was really cool to see how everything goes together,” agreed Laurel Donatelli, a senior at Oakland Catholic High School, who performed computer-aided design of some of the robot’s parts. Elizabeth Bianchini, a senior from Fox Chapel High School, built plastic foam scale models of the parts, while Sylvie Lee, a junior at Shadyside Academy, and Heather Harrington, a junior at The Ellis School, wrote computer programs to ensure that the robot avoided running into people or other obstacles. Katie Shreve, a senior at Plum Senior High School, helped with the mechanical design.
Chuck Whittaker, an FRC specialist, and Srinivasan Vijayarangan, senior research programmer, shouldered the bulk of the design and construction. The robot is built atop an electric wheelchair base, a popular platform for indoor mobile robots, and includes a laser scanner that looks for obstacles in its path, while a second, spinning laser scanner atop the robot gathers data from the surrounding environment that the software turns into 3D models. The robot also has two large flat-panel monitors to display videos.
“I knew CMU’s Robotics Institute did fantastic work,” said Aaron Morris, product manager for Autodesk’s Reality Solutions Group. “That they were able to build this robot in only a month’s time, and make it audience-safe, has only strengthened my appreciation for their capabilities. The ReCap Robot was a hit at AU, and we are happy that the Girls of Steel were able to gain valuable experience in the process.”
The speed necessitated by Autodesk’s tight schedule meant that the team had to borrow some parts from other robots, noted George Kantor, senior systems scientist in the Robotics Institute and sponsor of the Girls of Steel. “We’re sort of rebuilding the robot now,” swapping out those borrowed parts for permanent replacements, he added. Once the Autodesk robot project is complete, however, CMU will have its own version of the robot, with all of the same basic components, that can be used for further development.
For this year’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)  competition, the 39-member Girls of Steel built a robot called Atlas that is designed to catch and throw 24-inch game balls. During the event, the robots will play a game called Aerial Assist, in which two alliances of three robots each will try to score as many goals as possible within a time limit.
Founded by inventor Dean Kamen over 20 years ago in Manchester, N.H., FIRST has grown to reach over 303,000 youth in the U.S. and internationally in the 2012-13 season.
At the FIRST Buckeye Regional  in Cleveland, March 20-22, the Girls of Steel won the Engineering Inspiration Award, qualifying the team to compete for the fourth year in a row at the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, as well as the Entrepreneurship Award for having an outstanding business plan. The team was a finalist for the safety award.
At the Greater Pittsburgh Regional  at California University of Pennsylvania, March 27-29, The Girls of Steel finished sixth out of 48 teams and, as in Cleveland, won the Entrepreneurship Award. Two of the girls, Simran Parwani of Fox Chapel High School and Sylvie Lee of Shady Side Academy, won FIRST Dean’s List awards for their achievements in robotics and in high school.
The Girls of Steel are featured in a story, “Girl power on display at world robotics competition”  by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Robotics Institute and its Field Robotics Center are part of Carnegie Mellon’s top-ranked  School of Computer Science, which is celebrating its 25th year. Follow the school on Twitter @SCSatCMU.
Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice [atsymbol] cs.cmu.edu