Lego Robots at TTU to Save Planet From Volcanoes

Can watching children play with Legos be as exciting as a sports event?

It can if you're watching the FIRST Lego League state tournament at Tennessee Tech University on Saturday, Dec. 2. Almost 300 kids, ages 9-14, will compete in a team challenge to see whose Lego robot can win a high-energy event.

"The Lego competition is about making activities for the mind just as exciting as sports activities for kids," said Ken Hunter, director of TTU's Basic Engineering Program and this year's tournament director.

The competition, called "Volcanic Panic," features fully autonomous robots the teams have designed, built and programmed using a special Lego set. The robots are modeled after robotics-based techniques used by researchers to study volcanoes.

The game scenario challenges the teams to use the robot to collect data and save people and the environment from a volcanic eruption by completing a series of tasks -- such as dropping a piece of equipment into the model volcano and removing a miniature scientist from harm's way.

Each robot, consisting entirely of Lego pieces, contains an autonomous microcomputer that serves as the brain and responds to light, touch, rotation, temperature and visual sensors. Each team assembles a robot from more than 700 Lego pieces and creates a program that allows the robot to interact with the environment free from any wires or remote controls.

The event was created by FIRST, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1989 to give youths a chance to work on real-world application of science and technology. Competitions like the Lego state tournaments are designed as "sports for the mind."

Meteorologist Todd Howell of Knoxville television station WBIR will emcee the event. Event sponsors are Tennessee Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the American Museum of Science and Energy.

Teams will travel from Middle and East Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama to participate. Nationwide, more than 20,000 kids are participating in similar state events.

Three rounds of competition will be held at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.