Machinations

The sun will explode in 5 billion years, and robots are humanity's best hope to escape. Three guys are working on a plan. In a garage. In Heath, Texas.

Yundt promptly puts on a pair of safety goggles. "One time," he says, "I got a metal splinter in my eye. Believe me, one time is plenty."

Jordan, standing before his smoking acid vat, his arms folded across his chest and a smile planted on his face, nods his head in agreement.

"This," he says, "is not kid stuff at all."

"Little Toddler" was born in Barry Jordan's garage.
Peter Calvin
"Little Toddler" was born in Barry Jordan's garage.
Top: A contestant stalls during the Dallas Personal Robotics Group's line-following contest, while other contestants, below, queue up. Contest master of ceremonies Kip Moravec interviews Harrison Massey about his robot, "Sugar Eater 2."
Peter Calvin
Top: A contestant stalls during the Dallas Personal Robotics Group's line-following contest, while other contestants, below, queue up. Contest master of ceremonies Kip Moravec interviews Harrison Massey about his robot, "Sugar Eater 2."


Jordan's garage is one of several hideouts in which members of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group gather. Another is The Science Place in Fair Park, home of the IMAX Theater and the DPRG's increasingly popular robot contests.

On this Saturday morning, some 50 robot enthusiasts have emerged from their respective garages and arrived here, armed with pens, screwdrivers, laptop computers and the large plastic bins in which they store their robots.

The bots come in all shapes and sizes. Some are made from LEGO MindStorm kits, a retail sensation that has created a new breed of robot enthusiasts since it appeared in toy stores a year ago. But most robots, like Frank Elia's "Viperbot," are made from parts that would otherwise wind up in dumpsters.

"I was wondering what to do with all those AOL discs you get in the mail. That's the result," Elia says, pointing to Viperbot, whose brains are sandwiched between a pair of discs that Elia painted gray and blue in honor of his favorite car. "I always wanted a Dodge Viper, and that's the closest I got."

Scavenging is a key aspect of a robot builder's life.

"I would be willing to bet," says R. Steven Rainwater, a computer specialist who hosts the DPRG's Web site, "that every member of the DPRG has gone dumpster diving in the Richardson technology corridor at one time or another. You can find hundreds of dollars of pretty good stuff."

In the wake of the smash-hit Comedy Central show BattleBots, in which remote-controlled robots destroy each other using "killsaws," "ramrods" and giant metal sledgehammers, the DPRG has found it necessary to adopt a new definition of a robot--which is not a BattleBot.

A real robot, says DPRG President Robert Jordan, is known as an ALaN, an acronym that applies only to robots that have "autonomous locomotion and navigation." In other words, the robot must be able to move around and complete tasks without the use of a remote control.

"We've refined the definition of a robot to be more along the lines of what Asimov wrote about as a device that interacts with people," Jordan says.

Jordan, of course, is referring to the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, author of I, Robot, the groundbreaking 1950 novel that might well be the DPRG's bible. The book, which laid out a future in which robots are used to benefit mankind, introduced the "Three Laws of Robotics." The first and most important law states that robots must never be used to harm a human being.

DPRG members are typically strict adherents to Asimov's laws, which explains why some feel somewhat conflicted every Tuesday at 9 p.m., when they, like rubberneckers at a car wreck, faithfully tune in to BattleBots.

"There's the people among us who like the battlebots, and there are those of us who think it's an abomination of robotics," says Bill James, the group's vice president. "I watch it every Tuesday. I love it. I'd make one if I could afford it."

"I think it's a perversion," says Ralph Tenny, 70, the group's oldest member. Tenny's raspy voice makes him sound like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. "For one thing," he says, "battlebots are not automotive. That immediately removes them from this arena."

In this arena, which consists of a large rectangle of black paper rolled out on the floor and surrounded by an ankle-high wooden fence, brains are favored over brawn. What the contest lacks in oil-letting collisions, it makes up for in creativity.

Today, a dozen robots will compete in four contests, the most popular of which is "quick trip." The goal of quick trip is to see which robot can rip down the 16-foot-long course and return in the shortest amount of time without hitting any walls. How they complete the course is a matter of design.

Most of the robots in this contest are equipped with microchips, the same kind used in cell phones, which are programmed to instruct the robots to go 16 feet forward, stop and return in reverse. A good example is Sugar Eater 2, designed by 11-year-old Harrison Massey, who constructed his robot from a LEGO kit he found under the Christmas tree.

Within the DPRG, LEGO bots are often the target of jokes among the traditionalists, who argue that snap-together robots are inferior to those made from scrap. Massey, who describes himself as a "technophile" and says there's "no doubt" he'll be a scientist when he grows up, puts that debate to rest. Although his kit came with a set of blueprints for a flipping robot called "Acrobot," he created a racecar.

"Their design doesn't have any gearing on it at all," says Massey, who explains that he attached small gears to the wheels to increase velocity. "It has to do with the gear ratio. The smaller gears rotate faster than the big gears."

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