Hungry Robots

Team Hungry Robots, from left, Nathan Parsons, Aiden Milan, Sam Buzby, Jonah Mutehart, Daniel Mutehart, Landon Barnum with GVEA Director of External Affairs Meadow Bailey. Photo Courtesy Sarah Parsons

Young scientists are brainstorming solutions to real-life challenges in Fairbanks. Those ideas could be the foundation for changes in the future.

Just ask employees at Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA). They recently watched fifth through seventh graders from IDEA Homeschool present their research on how taller power poles can prevent outages currently caused by trees falling onto power lines.

The homeschoolers are members of the First LEGO League Team Hungry Robots. Team members include Nathan Parsons, Landon Barnum, Aiden Milan, Sam Buzby, Jonah Mutehart and Daniel Mutehart. They are all between the ages of 10 and 13, in grades 5 to 7. The team recently placed 23rd overall out of 75 teams at an international competition. At GVEA, they presented an entertaining skit showing results of their power pole research.

The student presentation was an award-winning one. The team came in first in the district, second at state competition and advanced to the International Competition at Worcester Poly-technic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“They did a really good job,” says head coach Sarah Parsons. “They worked so hard.”

As part of first LEGO League, teams compete in four areas: the robot game, the robot design presentation, an innovative research project and core values. For the robot game, the team builds a robot and adds attachments to accomplish missions on the game board. They then program the robot to activate the missions. For robot design, the team presents the lessons they learned building and programming their robot to judges.

The innovation project involves defining a problem based around the year’s theme and creating an innovative solution. This year’s theme was “Super Powered.” During the research process for the project, the team reaches out to experts and modifies their project as needed based on what they learn. They put together a presentation to share the project with judges, which could be simply sharing the information or in the form of a fun skit. Finally, everything in the season should be done with FIRST core values.

“During the whole competition, the kids are expected to show gracious professionalism in all they do and are judged on how well they applied the core values to their work.” Sarah says. “Discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.”

The project chosen by these young Fairbanksans was something they have experienced themselves—outages, caused by trees falling onto power lines.

“It’s an ongoing issue,” Sarah says. “Trees grow really tall and really skinny.”

They are weak, continually falling on power lines, and the rights-of-way are not wide enough to cut back every potential falling tree.

The Hungry Robot team came up with this solution: raise the power poles to 110 feet above ground in tree areas.

They then built a scale model, with current power pole heights and longer power pole heights. Running simulations, they recorded data and found their solution extremely effective.

They researched the cost to implement their solution, including the cost of taller power poles, shipping costs and replacement costs. They determined poles would need to be replaced in 60-70% of power rights-of-way, at an estimated cost of $337 million.

They didn’t stop there. The team began searching for grants and found funds available through the Jobs Act and other utility grants, as well as the Department of Energy.

Whether this can actually ever happen in the future remains to be seen, but the skills these students learned along the way are invaluable.

“There are logistics grownups might think of, that the group didn’t,” the coach says. “It was a real solution, which was very cool.”