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Carlton comes to life

Matt Knudsen flips a switch on the mass of wheels, servos, wires and motors, and with a soft purr, the device comes to life.

"It sounds like you're good to fire," 16-year-old team programmer Ari Falkner says from behind his laptop.

All systems go. Knudsen, 18, nods and inserts a plastic disc into a loader on top, a mechanism with three chambers that brings images of a vintage revolver to mind. The loader rotates, and the disc fires, sailing across Ashland High School's metal fabrication room, a good 60 feet.

"We definitely have a lot of consistency in our shots," Knudsen says.

The machine is a robot, designed and built by Knudsen, Falkner and eight or so other Ashland High School students over the past six weeks. Like every bot, it was designed with a mission in mind, and in this case, its primary directives are popular Southern Oregon pastimes: throw flying discs into a goal, climb a mountain.

About 60 teams from Oregon and Washington will compete to see whose is the best at the upcoming FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, regional competition at Portland's Memorial Coliseum in March. Top placers will advance to the national competition.

Today is the day teams must cease working on their devices and, overall, the Rogue Valley team feels good about its stopping point.

"It was a lot better," says 18-year-old Ellis Hammond of the design and building process. "The first couple weeks were spent teaching people how-to things. Everyone felt a lot more involved."

The students' collaboration yielded their robot, named Carlton "Artemus" Banks after a character from the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" sitcom. Controlled wirelessly by twin joysticks, it will be in an arena with a team of two other robots during competition day. It will receive plastic discs through slots, fire them through goals, and receive points based on their size. Then comes the climbing, in which the machines must scale a phone booth-sized metal pyramid one rung at a time. That component still is in the works, but the team hopes to use a cable winch for the summit-scaling portion of the game.

"The thing is very much a piecemeal project," team adviser Paul Moen says of the design process. "We built a generic base and we built from the ground up."

What resulted is a device that can cruise about 10 feet per second at top speed, stop quickly and turn on a dime.

The team had financial and practical help along the way. It received a $5,000 grant from NASA, along with additional funds from the Sandra James Music Foundation, Ashland Home Net and Evogeneao, an Ashland website promoting evolutionary biology education. The team netted about $11,000 in donations in all, with nearly half going toward kits and registration.

In addition, local engineers volunteered their expertise and time to the project. Jeff Nielsen, engineer and founder of Direct Machine Inc., was one of them. His company built a variety of devices that shipped all over the world, including radio telescopes and industrial robotic devices. Even though he didn't have as much time as he would have liked, he enjoyed nurturing the team members' interest in robotics.

"There are elements that are frustrating, but it's also been very rewarding to see the light go on," Nielsen says. "When I see that light go on, that means so much more to me than anything to do with the competition."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.