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A Dream Come True

March, 2012
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robotics_01Ever since I was a toddler, I loved taking things apart and putting them back together. I remember the first time I took something apart; it was my grandpa’s bike. My parents did not get mad at me, but rather encouraged my growing curiosity. Later they bought me a plastic toy tool set from Black & Decker, which included plastic screws and nuts. I still remember how much I enjoyed playing with the tools while watching the nuts and screws move while I rotated it. The more I was exposed to these “toys,” the more I discovered; the more I discovered, the more I became curious.

During a robotics camp last summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I discovered an interesting mechanism. Whenever I was bored, I would swing my nametag lanyard in circles while it was looped around my index finger. While doing this, something unexpected happened. After tying a random knot (later I found out that this was called the Prusik knot) around my finger, the lanyard would only freely rotate in one direction. If I tried to swing it the other direction, it would get itself caught and wrap around my finger. I continued to experiment with it, and came up with a way of taking advantage of this “cool trick.” I wondered to myself, what other things share this same single directional effect? I immediately started to sketch an invention. I combined the knot’s single directional effect with a bearing enclosure, creating a new type of one-way bearing. I made a model of this with a chopstick, a portion of a bottle-cap, and shoelaces. I was confident that my one-way bearing had advantages over the conventional design, while achieving the same function as the ones used in industries today; my bearing is not only much simpler in design, it is also much cheaper and easier to maintain. Within a month of my “eureka” moment, I had registered for a patent for my invention.

Many people ask me where I get my ideas. It is incredibly hard to think of a good idea on the spot; in my opinion, good ideas are the most random ones. For example, I thought of the “streetlight changer” while returning home on a school bus. I saw broken streetlights and thought, how do people change streetlights? Isn’t it dangerous up on a highway to change light bulbs? Could there be a better solution? This was how I ended up with the idea of a streetlight changer for the World Robot Olympiad (WRO) competition. I then continued to refine the concept of a streetlight changer and brainstormed different strategies for changing a streetlight. Once I settled with a plan, I was ready to engineer the streetlight-changing robot. With two teammates, I registered for the 2011 WRO and began the long and rigorous journey. My teammates’ main job was to prepare textual and visual aids for the presentation, which weighed just as heavily as the robot itself on the judging rubric. After four months of hard work, my teammates and I were finally ready for competition.

Before the 2011 WRO Shanghai regional competition, I had prepared all the materials while paying close attention to the details. I continuously reminded myself, and my teammates, to pay attention to every single detail. We made sure every word in the required essay was accurate and concise. We adhered to all the rules and requirements of the competition. We tightened every single joint on the streetlight changer, and brought extra charged batteries and the necessary tools. We ran through the main points of our presentation. We even prepared exactly what to wear on the day of the competition. After all this effort, I told my teammates that even if we don’t get to go to the world finals, we have already come a long way. “Just try your best and don’t worry,” I said.

robotics_02Thankfully, all our preparation paid off. We won the Shanghai regional competition, and then found out we were to represent China in the world finals! I started having dreams about winning the world championship. It was a fantastic moment, but more was to come.

The finals were not just a test for robot designs; the competition was more a test of perseverance. While transporting the robot and the streetlight over, we encountered every possible problem. Our four overweight cases had to be split into 11 separate bags, therefore increasing the chance of losing something. At the Abu Dhabi Airport, the luggage could barely fit in the bus. Safely transporting the streetlight changer, all the pieces of the streetlight, and our tools was almost an impossible task, but with help from my dad, we managed to get everything to the competition arena safely.

On judging day, after arriving at our booth, we realized one of the lights had become dim. Ironic as our robot’s job was to change lights. We were glad we had brought the spare batteries! My teammates and I became extremely tired in the afternoon because it was night time in Shanghai, but I insisted we kept awake and remained standing at our booth, always prepared to present. I even hid the two booth chairs so we were forced to stand. I told my teammates to persevere; we just had to make it through two days. We paid attention to every single passerby, no matter if they were a visitor, guest, media, VIP or judge. We paid attention to every single detail.

At the awards ceremony, my teammates and I were extremely nervous. Even though I told my teammates that we already tried our best and shouldn’t worry about whether or not we would win or lose, my feet and hands were numb and cold. We had put so much effort into the competition and we had gone such a long way. My dad tried to make me less nervous: “Nervousness won’t decide whether or not you won, the decision has already been made,” he said When “Streetlight Changer” won first place, my teammates and I could not contain our happiness. That moment of victory will remain in my memory forever.

When I reflect on the past 17 years, it’s hard for me to believe that I have made my way through so many ups and downs. I’ve come a long way from dismantling bikes and playing with plastic tools. I have invested so much time in something that I feel truly passionate about. There were times when I struggled to build a robot, but I never gave up; I always knew that I could build what I can think of. There were times when I preferred to stay home and work on my robot rather than to have fun with my friends. There were also times when I prioritized working on my robot over doing my homework. It has not always been easy to do what I love to do. My friends would often make fun of my interests. Building robots may not seem as “cool” as skateboarding, but oh boy, it sure is fun! Disregarding how people viewed me over the past years, I persevered and continued to dive deeper into my interests.

 

By Aaron Zhang,

Grade 11, Shanghai American School - Pudong campus

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