The adventures of the underdog geek squad from Carl Hayden Community High School and its rise to fame as the team Falcon Robotics is a never-ending Cinderella tale, one in which KVH Industries is happy to play a key supporting role.
Founded in 2001 in West Phoenix, Arizona, by Allan Cameron and Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi, Falcon Robotics was conceived as a hands-on way to get inner city kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Many of the students are from poor families of undocumented immigrants for whom English is a second language. The organization is one of today’s most successful student robotics teams in the country.
As a high school STEM extra-curricular group, Falcon Robotics competes in land-based and water-based robotics competitions. In 2004, the team upset its rivals, who hailed from other high schools and universities, including MIT, to take first place honors at the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) National ROV Championships at the University of California Santa Barbara. Stinky, a tele-operated underwater robot that relied on digital computer processors, was the team’s long-shot entry.
For Stinky and its creators, the unlikely victory ignited a string of media attention that shows no sign of letting up. A year after MATE, Wired magazine wrote about the victory. An ABC “Nightline” installment followed. In 2011 CNN included the story in the documentary “Don’t Fail Me: Education in America.”
In 2014, the Falcon Robotics tale was the focus of the documentary Underwater Dreams. Hollywood weighed in with its version soon after, Spare Parts. In 2014, the Wired magazine story evolved into a book with the publication of Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream. The team’s story is also included in the IMAX production “Dream Big: Engineering Wonders of the World,” scheduled for release in 2017.
Besides the media limelight, Falcon Robotics is also the recipient of the highly-coveted FIRST Robotics Chairman’s Award, made during the US FIRST Robotics Championships in 2008 which included induction into the FIRST Hall of Fame.
More recently, in 2015, the team entered a sophisticated underwater robot, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) called Sovereign Falcon, into the 18th annual AUVSI Robosub Competition in San Diego, California. The project represented an investment of about $25,000 and included a KVH DSP-1750 single-axis fiber optic gyro (FOG) that helped keep the AUV precisely on track to its exact destination.
For the effort, the team won the No Guts, No Glory Award, after engineering Sovereign Falcon so that it could navigate a point threshold of the underwater course accurately on only one try. “It was fantastic to be able to aim the AUV at the start of a run and have it go exactly where we aimed it. The judges wanted us to know that no one had ever done so much with just one FOG,” recalls Fredi Lajvardi, the team coach. “They were very curious as to how we acquired such an accurate gyro. They were impressed.”
This year, the KVH single-axis DSP-1750 FOG is again an integral part of the Falcon Robotics entry, providing positioning and navigation support. Named Haboob, after desert dust storms, the Falcon robot was entered in the 19th annual AUVSI Robosub Competition that ran July 25-31, 2016.
“We named it Haboob in the hope that when we compete we will come in like a dust storm and wipe out the competition,” says coach Fredi.
A dozen students worked on the gimballed Haboob. Other equipment on the robot are a depth senor, Doppler Velocity Log, two USB cameras, and a 4GHz CPU. The competition now has 50 entries, including three high schools.
“Underwater robots in recent years have been much more sophisticated than Stinky,” adds Frank Neuperger, team mentor. “They’re autonomous, and that requires sophisticated sensors. This is why industry sponsorship of sensors like the KVH gyro is so critical to be competitive.”
“Innovation is essential to making the world a better place to live in today and tomorrow,” says Jay Napoli, KVH vice president of FOG/OEM sales. “KVH is thrilled to be a longtime supporter of STEM programs, including the KVH Technology Scholarship, to help students convert nascent ideas into actionable outcomes.”