Budding scientist ups the game at Trinidad State robotics program
Trinidad Campus / January 29, 2018 / Written by Margaret Sanderson
Before he ever graduated high school, Hayden Alworth, was making his mark on the Trinidad State robotics’ program. In fact, he was making his mark on the city of Trinidad.
Alworth had little interest in computers until he discovered programming which he studied on his own until he joined the robotics’ program at Trinidad State when he was 14. When his mom drove him to the college to interview with the Robotics Faculty Advisor, Cynthia Clements, he learned that studying robotics provides opportunities for programming, mechanical design and electronics. He was hooked. Motivation and time requirements are two major considerations Clements looks for in students who interview for the program. Alworth has exceeded her expectations.
“He’s one of the best programmers I’ve ever taught if not the best,” said Clements. “One of the reasons he’s successful, besides that he speaks computer, is he learns on his own and absorbs anything he reads. He did all of the programming for three of our robots.”
Alworth said, “My first really big programming project was building a computer tune-up/antivirus program, which I continue to maintain and update with new features. Other projects that I have done include the programs used to make each one of our robots work and writing what are called "libraries" to control robotic sensors. Currently, I am working on creating a video streaming program to allow our robot to send us high-quality live video streams.”
The college isn’t the only one benefitting from Alworth’s expertise. Home schooled and self-taught, he serviced the family computers and then his friends’ computers. Then others wanted his assistance. When he was 16, he and his family opened a computer repair shop. At first, he serviced mostly personal computers, but when local businesses learned of his prowess, he began to maintain their systems as well. That has evolved into computer maintenance for the City of Trinidad, the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office, E-911 Authority, the town of Aguilar and many other businesses and private customers.
At Trinidad State, each of the nine robots the team members have created have acronyms that represent their unique characteristics. The fifth robot the team created, Allen (Autonomous Logical Land-based Electronic Navigator), was the first one Alworth programmed. It was also the first ever robot to complete all six sand challenges of increasing difficulty at the Colorado Space Grant Consortium competition in April, 2014. That event happens each year at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve located northeast of Alamosa, Colorado. Considering most colleges represented were four-year schools, winning was extra special for the two-year community college students.
In April 2015, once again, the Trinidad State robot was the only robot to complete all six challenges at the Sand Dunes competition. BEK-E (Beacon Electronic Kinect Explorer), the program’s sixth robot, was also programmed by Alworth. “The newest Xbox game consul can detect movements and can see you and know what you are doing without the use of a joystick,” said Alworth. “I was able to get into it and make the connector send its data to our robot’s processor,” he said. “That way BEK-E could actually see colors and get a 3-D perception of the landscape, seeing where the obstacles were and planning ahead to avoid them.”
In April 2016 the Trinidad State robotics team excelled once again with the new and improved Sable (Scoop and Bucket Land Explorer), robot number 7. Alworth programmed this one too. Not only did it identify a specific color, but it completed the extra credit challenge and found the orange golf ball and retrieved it! Sable was the only robot to complete this extra-credit challenge although robots from other schools were now completing the first six challenges.
“It takes us about a year to build a robot,” said Alworth. “We think about more advanced features and then begin work.” Having conquered the sand and having built one other robot since Sable, the team is now building Scout-E (Sample Collecting Optical Ultimate Terrain Explorer). Trinidad State robot number nine. Robots for the Sand Dunes competition are limited to 8.8 lbs. Scout-e will weigh approximately 50 lbs. The team won’t compete at the Sand Dunes competition this year, but they do plan to demonstrate Scout-E then.
“When I first joined, we were trying to get the robot to navigate on its own and avoid obstacles and that was all we wanted it to do,” said Alworth. “Now the robot can navigate, pick up rocks, stream video feed and can send data back to a mission control station about what it’s doing. This year we’re trying to make it turn doorknobs, or push buttons or even use a screw driver.
In June 2016, NASA invited Alworth along with two classmates, Colin Pratt and Jordan Jones, to the Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, where they had the opportunity to work with a group of people to build a payload, sensors housed in a unit that are launched in a rocket. Five different sensors in this payload logged data about humidity, temperature, pressure, radiation and acceleration.
“Designing a payload at Wallops Flight Facility taught me a lot about how to design something to survive the harsh conditions near space,” said Alworth. “We had to make sure that all of the wires were tied down very securely, and we also had to coat our circuit boards with a non-conductive coating, so they could work in low pressure without shorting. Also, we were able to watch the rocket launch from only about 1,000 feet away. Watching the launch this close was amazing! It was exciting to have something that I put together, launched in a rocket, and then retrieved when the rocket came back down.”
When NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) heard the Trinidad State robotics team was practicing with their eighth robot, CLOEE (Camera-controlled Land-based Optical Electronic Explorer), they invited the team to practice in their Mars Yard at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in May, 2017. Trinidad State was the only community college invited. Thirteen team members participated as CLOEE was controlled by the team, sight unseen, as they relayed messages to the robot from a command center. NASA officials were impressed with CLOEE’s performance as it made its way over the Mars-like terrain. After the practice, the group was given a special ground floor tour of “Building 9” where space projects were underway. Generally, tours in this building are given from overhead walk ways. “It contained a full-size model of the international space station, along with different designs for Mars’ rovers,” said Alworth. “Some of the engineers who watched the Trinidad State rover perform in the Mars Yard gave helpful feedback to the team.”
Alworth, who is now 19, has been involved in the robotics’ program for five years. He will graduate this spring. His intense curiosity about anything mechanical, especially engines, was evidenced as early as age three. As he grew, his dad would find broken lawn mowers and bring them home so Alworth could repair them. When he was about ten, his dad took him to visit the Trinidad State Automotive Department where the instructor gave him two lengthy books about mechanics that he read within a year. He learned about diagnosing problems from symptoms. “When I am not doing robotics, I still enjoy working on cars, taking care of the different animals that we have, and hiking and biking,” said Alworth. “I also like experimenting with different electronic devices.”
Alworth is considering Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction because the university has a good space program. Working for NASA, possibly in their Mars rover program, appeals to him.
About the robotics program, he said, “It’s probably the best robotics program offered probably anywhere, in the state of Colorado at least. I like it because the class sizes are a lot smaller than you would have at a bigger school and the instructor is good. I was already interested in working for NASA, but my experiences at Wallops Flight Facility and Johnson Space Center solidified that interest.”
Access more information about the Trinidad State robotic program at http://trinidadstate.edu/robotics/