Rookie robotics team excels in tourney SanTan Sun News

Rookie robotics team excels in tourney

Rookie robotics team excels in tourney
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

An East Valley all-female robotics team scored better than any other American team at a recent international competition in San Diego.

Arizona State University’s Desert Women’s Autonomous Vehicle Engineering club came in third place last month in a contest that tested the abilities of its underwater submarine.

Desert WAVE went up against collegiate teams from Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, Canada and several American universities in a competition hosted by Robonation.

The ASU team was only outdone by Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University and China’s Harbin Engineering University.

Whitney Foster, the team’s president and a Chandler native, said the group of rookie engineers spent the last year preparing for the competition and were pleasantly surprised by how well they performed.

“We exceeded everybody’s expectations, as well as our own,” Foster said. “It was important for us to see that we’re better competitors than we thought we were.”

The group’s robot, Phoenix, had to go through several runs of underwater courses, completing a number of obstacles and challenges.

Foster said her teammates were able to equip the Phoenix with many high-tech features that were donated from another robotics team at Carl Hayden High School. This recycling of parts influenced the team’s decision in how it would name its robot.

“It came from the ashes of an old robot to a new one,” Foster said.

One challenge the team had to overcome was finding the right time and place to experiment with the Phoenix.

Because the Arizona heat would slow down their computers during the day, the team could only try out the robot late at night — and sometimes in their own backyard pools.

The Si Se Pueda Foundation, a nonprofit based in Chandler, partnered with ASU to create Desert WAVE about a year ago. The club was meant to provide an additional opportunity for young women to earn hands-on engineering experience.

Faridodin Lajvardi, the foundation’s vice president of science initiatives, said women in the science and engineering fields are underserved and many don’t feel welcomed by their male-dominated culture.

“We wanted to address the shortage of women in (science) by creating a women’s team that would allow women to build the knowledge base and confidence to compete in male-dominated competitions,” Lajvardi said.

Some team members are fairly new to the robotics world and had never competed on a team before.

Foster, who graduated from Chandler High School, said she originally planned to study physical therapy before her teachers convinced her to pursue engineering.

Thirteen members of Desert WAVE traveled to San Diego for the competition and came home with a check for $3,000.

The competition consisted of 54 teams from 13 countries vying for points by having their robots complete a series of tasks in pools designed to replicate the ocean.

Algae lined the floors of the underwater course, hindering the visibility of competitors and creating a potential hazard for the submarines.

The competition required submarines to drop small objects into a bin.

Foster said her team feared they would lose their objects in the murky algae. So, they improvised by attaching markers, making the objects easier to retrieve underwater.

Desert WAVE made it passed the semi-finals by ranking in at fifth place — an already impressive accomplishment for the group of freshman scientists.

“We just wanted to prove that we could do well as a rookie team,” Foster said. “We just wanted to perform well, not that well.”

They were only one of a handful teams that got to advance to the final round.

Foster said their victory has spurred more interest in the club and they expect more ASU students to join this year. They’ve already begun making plans for the 2020 competition and may build a new robot.

“We’re really looking forward to this next year and we can’t wait to see where it goes,” she added.

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