Robot Drone League competition heads to Saturn moon Titan

Rick Wagner • Jun 24, 2020 at 5:00 PM

KINGSPORT — The second annual Robot Drone League (RDL) competition will be taking a trip to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Well, local students in grades 6-12 won’t actually be traveling from Earth or remotely sending their drones to the moon of another planet.

However, the competing teams in the Dragonfly event hosted by STREAMWORKS, headed by Dennis Courtney, will be designing drones to compete in a simulation of what flying and rover drones would do on a surface that includes lakes of methane.

“We know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean,” said Makaila Freeman, a rising senior at Dobyns-Bennett High School and CEO or captain of an underwater robotics team there. She and recently graduated Gavin Bentley, a former team CEO who is headed to East Tennessee State University, were masters of ceremonies for a Facebook Live video announcing the competition Wednesday.

The 2020 RDL Challenge season will start in September and end with competitions in December and January.

The competition field, shown during a livestreamed RDL announcement June 10, will include mountains, math and science problems, satellite antennas and beacons to install that will activate the antennas and drop points for seismometers to detect earthquake activities in the mountains, a fog machine that will at times make vision difficult, nitrogen and hydrogen cubes to be picked up and carbon pods to be mined. In addition, up to two team members will be involved in the lab to make things like methane and butane from the elements. The teams also will drop a autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) into the lake of methane.

The “end game” of the competition, to last about 10 minutes, is to get the robot up on a bar. Teams are recommended to number from 10 to 15, although there is no size limit, Freeman said.

This year’s program will include online videos via Canvas and on-site help if requested, meaning teams are not required to make weekly trips to the STREAMWORKS headquarters on Lynn Garden Drive in Kingsport. However, teams should expect to spend at least two afternoons a week on the work, which can be either completely extracurricular or cocurricular as part of the school day.

Homeschooled students are allowed to participate. In fact, a team organized in Johnson City last year was made up of homeschooled students.

D-B student Quintin Folkner said the cost is $800 for returning teams or $2,500 for a new team that needs the complete kit. Registration and payment are due Sept. 5. D-B student Zack Newman also spoke.

Lee County teacher Cindy Nickodam in a video sang the praises of the program. 

Subhashini Vashisth, an Eastman Chemical Company engineer, had a daughter on an all-girl team and said the students were so interested in the competition they didn’t realize how much they learned.

And Kingsport Alderwoman Jennifer Adler, an ETSU employee with a child in the competition last year, said it taught complex problem solving, team work and listening to feedback. 

Gracie Crabtree, a Milligan College student involved with STREAMWORKS, praised said the coding aspect of the program.

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