Meital Menasherov – proud to bring home the trophy to Israel and to her school.What exactly does it take to create a robot that can quickly maneuver through an apartment and put out a fire? Apparently, a team of motivated Israeli high school students know the answer better than anyone else.

Israeli teams made a clean sweep of the top awards for high school teams in the 2005 Trinity College Firefighting Robot Contest held in Connecticut earlier this month.

The goal of the unique exercise, which has taken place for the past 11 years, is to encourage inventors of all ages and levels of skill. The challenge of the contest is to build an autonomous computer-controlled robot that can find its way through an arena that represents a model house, find a lit candle that represents a fire in the house, and extinguish the fire in the shortest time. This task simulates the real-world operation of an autonomous robot performing a fire protection function in a real house. The goal of the contest is to advance robot technology and knowledge while using robotics as an educational tool.

The high school teams from Israel who participated in the contest not only learned a great deal from their experience – but gained a healthy measure of national pride, as well.
Four separate schools from different regions in Israel beat out teams from Singapore, Japan, and Korea and across the United States, taking home the top prizes.

The high school level of the competition had two categories of difficulty – ‘entry-level’ and ‘standard’ In each category, a different number of obstacles in the model ‘household’ had to be navigated in order for the robot to complete its task of putting out a fire.

In the ‘standard’ category, Israel took home all the trophies – students from Kiryat Sharett High School in Holon won first prize, the students of Ostrovsky High School in Ra’anana won second place and students at Hayovel High School in Herzliya grabbed third place.

In the ‘entry-level’ category, the team from Misgav Experimental High School took home the first place trophy and the Herzliya Hayovel students won second place. To top off the triumph, the students from Misgav High also won first place in the ‘Robot Olympics’ in which the competitors had to answer questions on theoretical material in robotics.

Idan Brodet, 18, a member Ostrovsky team, told ISRAEL21c that “we knew most of the time that our toughest competition was one another. Checking around, you could see that the Israeli robots were very good – and much quicker than the others.”

He said the students came home with more than just trophies

“It was a very new and exciting experience, to compete against other schools from around the world, and to meet the students and get to know them. We hooked up with a group of Canadian students at our hotel and became really good friends with them. And we got exposed to technology that we didn’t know about. The Japanese team, for example, had interesting elements in their robot that we hadn’t known about. It was a lot of fun.”

Gershon Cohen, manager of the technology department in the Israeli Education Ministry, who coordinates the overseas activities of the Israeli robotic teams, called the participants, “the next generation of Israel’s high tech minds.”

Asked by ISRAEL21c why he thought Israel dominated the event, he said “Robotics is multidisciplinary. It involves electronics, mechanics, engineering computers, and this suits the Israeli student. It also requires a lot of creativity, concentration, and an ability to adapt and act quickly on the spot. I think Israeli young people are good at reacting in real time to problems, and that gives us an advantage in these contests. When something breaks, you have to fix it, when the weather or other conditions are different, you have to deal with it.”

Since the goal of the contest is to make a robot that can operate successfully in the real world, not just in the laboratory, the robots must be able to operate successfully where there is uncertainty and imprecision.

Therefore, dimensions and specifications listed in the rules that are given to the students beforehand are not exactly what will be encountered at the contest. When the teams first arrived in Connecticut, they had to work feverishly to make the necessary adjustments.

A story on the contest published in the Trinity College newspaper described the scene at the competition and took note of the prominence of the Israelis.

“Walking to the back, one noticed an unknown language being spoken by a group of high school students huddled over a table,” reported the Trinity Tripod.

“A glance on the schedule sheet confirmed that this was the much venerated Israeli contingent. Another look at their practice was enough to justify their reputation: on view was a robot with wheels the size of monster truck tires, a far cry from most other machines, which were a bundle of wires and Lego blocks. Whizzing around the maze, it extinguished the candle flame and returned to applause from a motley group of awe-struck spectators. Almost as if bowing to acknowledge the applause, the maker of the robot modestly exclaimed, “That was lucky!”

When his school’s team returned from the contest triumphant, Uri Erlich, principal of the Misgav Experimental School, said, “I was very happy, proud, and not particularly surprised, because our kids took this very seriously. It took many months of planning and endless efforts to improve their robot.”

He told ISRAEL21c that robotics competitions “are a great exercise in teamwork, curiousity and creativity. They attract students because they are dealing with real problems in real time. It’s not theoretic academics. They are working on something relevant and connected to real life.”

The triumphant Kiryat Sharett team from Holon was notable in that it included a female member: Meital Menasherov, who said that she was proud to bring home the trophy to Israel and to her school.

“I know that the robotics are considered a subject for boys – but that’s just a stigma. I am a girl and I really love the field,” she told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.

Menasherov will soon be flying to another robotics competition in Japan. For that competition, she has brought her own feminine touch to robotics – she will be bringing a robot called ‘Daisy’ a nearly lifesize robot with the ability to dance.

Other teams will be going on to further robotics competitions in the United States, events which are becoming increasingly popular in number and attract enthusiastic audiences: the equivalent of a high tech spectator sport.

Presumably, it is a sport in which Israel will continue to make an impressive appearance.