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Built to battle: Students build 'sumo robots' using circuit board designed by PNNL volunteer

June 04, 2013 Share This!

  • Duane Balvage, PNNL electrical technician, helps Delta High School students install software on their sumo robots.

  • Duane Balvage, PNNL electrical technician, helps Delta High School students install software on their sumo robots.

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RICHLAND, Wash. – Tri-Cities students at Delta and Kamiakin high schools are nearly finished building dozens of mini robots using a circuit board designed by Duane Balvage, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory electrical technician.

Balvage has volunteered as a guest instructor for the past two years at Delta High School, southeast Washington's only science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, school. Last year he started redesigning the circuit board students are using this spring to build "sumo robots".

The bots are built to duel inside a circular ring called a "dohyo", named after the ring in which real-life sumo wrestlers compete. Unlike remote-controlled robots, sumo robots are self-automated, meaning they use sensors and programming to hunt down and push their opponents out of the dohyo. Both schools plan to hold competitions at the end of the school year.

Jim Hendricks has been teaching students how to build sumo robots for 11 years, the last 4 years as an instructor of Delta High School's engineering technology class. But when Balvage saw the circuit board his stepson was using last year in Hendricks' class, he thought he could make improvements. He said the old board, like a closed box, made it difficult for students to learn what was going on inside.

Balvage designed the new circuit board with a layout that students could learn from. He also added six sensors instead of two, LED lights that indicate a sensor is working, and a dual power supply that increases battery life beyond one match.

But the improvements don't end with the physical board. Balvage also created instructions and a 3D digital model to help students learn about electronics as they build their bots. And for the last few months, he's been volunteering to visit Delta High School weekly to help students design, build and troubleshoot their robots.

Hendricks said Balvage brings a lot to his class.

"He explains things in a very simple way, where kids-and teachers-can understand it," Hendricks said.

Balvage has designed and built electrical technology at PNNL for four years. In one of his current projects, he is designing a finger-sized circuit board packed with instruments that measure the forces acting on fish as they pass through hydroelectric dam turbines. The circuit board will be placed in an upgraded version of PNNL's "Sensor Fish", which helps scientists evaluate how dams affect migrating fish.

Balvage said his job at PNNL is to build electronic devices and systems that work more efficiently and seamlessly. He hopes the students he interacts with will take to heart his philosophy of improving technology.

"If I can use what I know to help students learn, they might take this path," Balvage said.

For more about Sensor Fish, click here.

Tags: Energy, Environment

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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