Robots on the rise


Transition Year students from Mayo have come up with the goods yet again in the Irish and UK First Lego League robotics competition 2010/11, reports JOHN HOLDEN

He might officially be the patron saint of motherhood, but St Gerard might as well be the patron saint of robotics, if the success of the Co Mayo school that bears his name is any indication.

The students from St Gerard’s College in Castlebar have earned outstanding reputation in robotics competitions in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere. Picking up national and international awards in 2008 and 2009, they are the current title-holders for the UK Ireland First Lego League Body Forward Challenge. The six-strong team from Co Mayo beat 27 other teams from around the UK earlier this year and are now on their way to St Louis, Missouri for this year’s world finals in April.

The competition has four strands – research project, robot game, technical judging and teamwork. The robot game is what this competition is best known for and, while the students from St Gerard’s were leagues ahead of the competition in this section, it is their research project which really set them apart.

“This year’s theme for the research project was biomedical engineering,” explains 15-year-old Oisin Kyne. “We had to look at a body part – and problems associated with it – and suggest solutions to those problems. Then we talked to experts on the subject and shared our solution. We have designed a smartphone app for epileptics but it could also be used by people with heart or age-related conditions.

“The app will automatically send a text to someone – a carer or family member – who can help if the epileptic collapses. The app would also play an audio warning to passers by, giving them instructions to call 911 etc.”

This invention, coupled with their robotic skills and excellent teamwork, will be what they hope will give them the edge in April. With 84 applicants at the world finals, naturally the competition will be more intense. But the students are quietly confident. .

“The app sets us apart from other teams,” says Donnchadh Barry (16). “Others have solutions or an idea for biomedical engineering. But it’s the low cost of ours and the accessibility of the technology which makes it so useful. Most people have a smart phone these days.

“We’re using the movement sensor, or accelerometer technology inside smartphones. It’s the same as is used in apps you put beside you when you’re sleeping to tell you how many times you’ve rolled over during the night.

“We’ve been falling in lots of different positions on mats in the school to make sure all types of fall is picked up by the sensors.”

Robot essentials

We asked David McKeown of the Irish Robotics Club to give us some tips

1. Motor: Allows the robot to move about or may be used to interact physically with an object.

2. Micro controller: The brain of the robot. Programmed to make decisions on what to do next by reading sensor data.

3. Sensors: Capture information about the surrounding environment and send this information back to the micro controller.

4. Motor driver: Commands the motor to move when the micro controller tells it to. The motor driver is needed because the micro controller cannot supply enough electrical current to the motors directly.

How to build your own robot

by David McKeown of the Irish Robotics Club


Not the robot, but “Keep It Simple Stupid”. Anything that’s complicated can be broken into smaller parts. “If you want to build a robot to chase your cat around the house while you watch it on your computer, you start with designing a robot that can move and then move on to adding cameras, etc,” says McKeown. Keeping things simple also includes asking other people for help. “There are great books and websites around on this subject and you should also ask your technology or science teacher to help you,” he advises.

2. Join a club

Set up a club or join an existing one, such as the Irish Robotics Club. “When everyone’s learning together, it can be a lot more fun and you can benefit from each other’s individual expertise.” (see for details)

3. Enter a competition.

It’s a great way to set goals. The Irish Robotics Club recently ran a competition, plus they are sending a team to one in Vienna in March. There’s also the Irish schools Lego League (

4. Be creative

“There are loads of different types of robots you can put together – sumo robots, humanoid robots, freestyle robots,” says McKeown. “Use your imagination. The more imaginative you are the more you’ll learn about electronics.”

5. Sourcing parts

There are loads of robot websites online, but McKeown recommends salvaging your parts from old electronics.

“Old walkmen, toys, radio-controlled cars, etc, have plenty of parts that could be useful,” he says. “If you want to build a robot from scratch, it is also worth asking companies for sponsorship. If you ask for materials and tell them you’re entering a competition, they might be prepared to help you if you promote their company somehow.”