JACKSONVILLE — When Jacksonville High School eighth-graders Reese Hines and Andreea Trifas needed inspiration to build a robot, they didn’t have to look further than a disaster in their own town.
They designed DCAP, Disaster Cleanup Acceleration Project, after seeing the devastation up close that the March 19, 2018, tornado caused in Jacksonville.
“Everyone in the town was so affected,” Trifas said Wednesday afternoon. “It really did motivate us to get the robot done, because it felt so close to home.”
Trifas said her residence wasn’t damaged in the storm, but she was without power for more than a week. Hines lived off of Alabama 204, along the path of havoc the tornado left as it got closer to town.
“When you see it on the news, you know it's bad,” Hines said. “When it's close to you, it gets a whole lot more personal.”
Their robot is set to be entered into a regional competition Friday at Jacksonville State University through the high school’s robotics program. The two will demonstrate DCAP’s abilities and talk about its design, competing against students in their age group in schools from across Northeast Alabama for the right to move on to state-level competition. Other groups of students from the high school will present their projects too.
DCAP is made of a mostly metal frame, with a cardboard scoop in front, designed to move debris into a container mounted to the back of the robot. A large cardboard map of Jacksonville serves at the robot’s area of cleanup for demonstration, where it scoops paper simulations of debris from across roads.
“That’s mainly what shut down roads, is trees and power line poles,” Hines said, controlling the robot with its handheld remote.
David Kadle, the school’s sponsor for the robotics program, said he was supportive of the idea when the two first pitched it to him.
“I thought it was a really good idea,” Kadle said. “Because of our locality, it hits close to home. Then the application is expandable anywhere. They prototyped something that could be useful to a lot of people around the world.”
Students in the program mostly build smaller-scale prototypes that serve as a proof-of-concept for larger ideas. One group of students will present a room-cleaning robot that sweeps trash, but another designed a fire extinguisher robot so large it no longer fits in Kadle’s classroom.
With some guidance from Kadle, students are encouraged to work independently throughout the process of designing, coding and constructing their own robots.
“It’s really important in this day and time for kids to get involved in this,” Kadle said. “It’s very good for them. It translates into almost anything else engineering-related, with creativity and the thinking that goes behind it. They build these things from scratch.”
A small group of students is involved in the program, which meets during seventh period in Kadle’s classroom. Students from seventh through 12th grades are welcomed to schedule the class at the beginning of the school year and group together to build robots. On Wednesday, the room was filled with the clattering of excess metal scraps and the whirring of robots at work as students put finishing touches on their bots.
“Nobody’s here that doesn’t want to be here,” Kadle said. “Everybody wants to learn.”
Hines said she thinks a full-scale DCAP model could be useful even today in a Jacksonville that hasn’t quite bounced back to its pre-storm form.
“Really, there’s still work to be done around here,” she said.
“I really hope this inspires people to find something to make a difference in their own towns,” Trifas said.