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Pint-size inventors eye new robotics

Robokids Hunter Galbraith (left) and Ryan Watson, both Grade six students at McGowan Park Elementary, explore the world of possibilities as they build computer-assisted robots at the Big Little Science Centre. - DAVE EAGLES/KTW
Robokids Hunter Galbraith (left) and Ryan Watson, both Grade six students at McGowan Park Elementary, explore the world of possibilities as they build computer-assisted robots at the Big Little Science Centre.
— image credit: DAVE EAGLES/KTW

The robot whizzes across the floor of the Big Little Science Centre and plows straight into a wall before turning 90 degrees and continuing on its way.

This is not your typical Lego.

Starting Friday, Oct. 26, the centre’s robotics club will kick into gear for another year.

During the course of three four-week sessions, kids ages 10 and up will learn to build and program their own bots using Lego robotics kits.

Hunter Galbraith, 11, and Ryan Watson, 10 — who have attended previous clubs — are already planning their next creations.

Hunter has his eye on a complicated truck design where the front wheels can move independently of the rest of the vehicle.

“I’ve never actually been able to accomplish it, but I’m definitely going to try,” he says, pulling up a design schematic on a laptop.

Ryan is thinking of something more sci-fi.

“A Star Wars walker,” he says.

“That is an awesome one,” Hunter agrees.

And not, it turns out, all that difficult to make — the trick is getting the robot stable enough that it can balance on one leg while the other is in motion.

“You can do anything with robots,” Hunter says.

“That’s what’s great about robots. You can just let your imagination run free.”

Building a bot is done in two stages.

To make the body, club members use Lego gears, claws, wheels, motors and other pieces, which are attached to “the brain” — a small grey box that looks a bit like a thermostat.

Builders can also use a number of different sensors, which link into the brain. These can detect pressure, weight, temperature, sound and light, to name just a few.

Once the bot is built, the brain is plugged into a laptop and programming begins.

The robot that turns when it runs into walls uses only a couple of commands, Ryan explains.

It’s programmed to move forward until it hits something, turn and keeps going on an infinite loop.

Other designs can take several screens of input.

There’s not much limit to what the robots can do, says the science centre’s executive director, Gord Stewart.

Past projects in the club have included a working crane, a card-dealing robot and “an alligator that just sat there and did nothing until you got to a certain distance. Then, it would rush out and grab you.”

For the most part, the club is free-form.

Kids build out of their imagination or by using pre-designed plans, then tear down and rebuild as soon as they’ve got their current creations fine tuned.

Sometimes they’ll compete, trying to make robots that can move faster or get through mazes quicker.

A club favourite is the sumo ring — where members try to keep their robot in the ring while shoving a competitor’s creation out.

“Once we get them to do that, it’s pretty hard to get them to do anything else,” Stewart says.

The sumo-ring challenge led Galbraith to build his favourite creation so far.

“I made a destroyer,” he says, as though he’s announcing the bot’s name at some sort of battle royale.

“It drove up to a robot, picked it up, drove over and dropped it outside of the sumo ring. So, it crushed it while it drove. It was pretty cool.”

His source of inspiration? NASA’s Mars Rover.

The Big Little Science Centre’s robotics club runs every Friday from 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. for four weeks, starting Oct. 26, Nov. 16. and Nov. 23.

Cost for the four-week program is $40.

To register or learn more about the club, go online to

biglittlesciencecentre.org/robotics/htm or visit the centre at 984 Holt St.

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