They came up with the idea while competing in Utah's FIRST LEGO League - a global robotics and innovation competition for kids ages 9-14 and they won first place for their invention in the project category at the 2013 World Festival Competition recently.
Every FIRST LEGO League season has a theme. This year it was Senior Solutions, and teams had to invent something that addressed an important senior problem. RoboThunder identified falling as the most urgent problem for seniors, because falls are often fatal for the elderly. Their solution is a wearable airbag that deploys when a senior is falling and can call emergency services.
"Falling is one of the leading causes of death for seniors - it's a major problem," says Scott McClellan, RoboThunder coach, a father of two team members and a bioengineer. "The team identified the issue early on and came up with a great solution. They went way beyond the idea phase, testing every possible thing to make it work and even securing a provisional patent."
RoboThunder team members include Paul Cox (12), Max Davidson (13), Jake (Avi) Gregory (13), Zina Horman (13), Zach Lund (10), Kip McClellan (10) and Garrett McClellan (12).
World Festival is the final competition for the global FIRST LEGO League program. Over 205,000 kids from over 60 countries participate in the FIRST LEGO League program. RoboThunder advanced after winning the Utah FIRST LEGO League Championship at the University of Utah.
"Once we got to the World Festival, the level of competition was pretty daunting and intimidating. No matter how hard you work, there is a world of teams that have worked as hard as you have and maybe harder," McClellan says.
"There were 30,000 teams from more than 60 countries that entered this year's FLL Challenge," he adds. "At World Festival, you get to meet kids from all over the world; it's spectacular and fun. But you are going up against the best of the best."
Every FIRST LEGO League tournament consists of several components. The robot game table takes center stage, where teams complete missions with autonomous LEGO robots. The tournaments also include a robot design competition, teamwork challenge and a project presentation.
RoboThunder did well in all categories at the Utah FIRST LEGO League Championship, but they really shined in the project category at World Festival. They received the top research award because of how well they researched and presented their idea and how far they got with execution.
The team came a long way from first thinking of the idea in spring of 2012. At that time, they didn't even know what shape their airbag should be. They started out by dragging pillows and balls into the backyard to test what would work best.
"The kids got so black and blue from throwing each other on the ground that we decided to build a Segway Robot, 'Granny-bot,' to test our fall-detection ability rather than using each other," McClellan says. "The Granny-bot used the same parts we used for the robot competition and helped us test our airbag ideas."
Ultimately, after months of testing and research, they settled on a reusable, wedge-shaped airbag that would be held in a fanny-pack and worn around the waist. They researched possible deployment technologies and algorithms. Eventually, they decided it would be best to pair their invention with a smartphone that could help detect a fall and trigger the airbag. They went even further, planning a feature to automatically call 911 and use GPS to send the person's location.
"It's phenomenal that middle school students can make innovative impact toward solving real problems" says Kathy Hajeb, director, Lassonde Center at the University of Utah, which is the operational partner for FIRST LEGO League in Utah. "We only started this program in Utah three years ago, and we are already seeing success at the global level. Utah's innovative spirit is strong in our youth."
To learn more about Utah FIRST LEGO League, go to www.utfll.utah.edu. Team registration is open from May to September each year, and every year concludes with the championship event in January. To learn more about RoboThunder, go to www.robothunder.org.