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Editor's Note: Open Source Spirit Lives In The Next Generation

Mar 21, 2005, 23:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Rob Reilly)

By Rob Reilly
Contributing Editor

[Note from the Managing Editor: Rob Reilly, who did an excellent job filling in for me while I was out on vacation, submitted this article for his own Editor's Note. Here is his take on another community, much like our own. -BKP]

To all of you super star programmers, high and mighty guru level systems people, build anything with duct tape and bailing wire engineers, and visionary marketing wizards... there's a monster on the horizon that threatens to gobble up the high tech world, possibly even Linux and open source.

But, you needn't worry your pretty little propeller-equipped heads.

If anything, you should go and embrace the monster, because after all, they are only a bunch of high school kids.

That's right... a bunch of high school robotics experts, to be exact. The spirit of open source lives in a new generation.

I had a glimpse of the monster, last week at the FIRST Robotics Competition, on the University of Central Florida (UCF) campus, here in Orlando.

To quote the FIRST Robotics Competition web page:

"The FIRST Robotics Competition is an exciting, multinational competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in an intense and competitive way. The program is a life-changing, career-molding experience—and a lot of fun."

I wish you could have been there. Any Linux Today reader would have been grinning from ear to ear.

The enthusiasm was infectious. The technical focus intense. Team spirit was rampant. Tools were spinning. Laptops were ubiquitous. Cooperation and good sportsmanship were everywhere. And, it was all very cool.

The spirit of open source was there and you would have been proud.

Similarities to today's open source world were striking...and the kids were absolutely astounding.

I recall one 14-year-old team leader going into a detailed explanation of how his team's robot software could navigate autonomously around obstacles, while leaving just 63 bytes of available memory space unused. It also logged and mapped its movements to a PC over a wireless link. Sounds like some of the open source gurus I've met.

The robots, which were all designed and built by the high schoolers, in six weeks no less, were amazingly sophisticated. The arrangement of servos, pneumatic pistons, gear trains, batteries, motor controllers, microprocessor and welded aluminum parts were infinite.

Teams even had "equipment managers." These kids were responsible for seeing that everything was ready, when the robots came back to the pits for repairs or program tweaking. Tools were all clean and in their assigned spots. Media handouts were neatly stacked. Past competition slide show loops were running on team laptops. The embodiment of version control and project management.

I received a rather stern look when I jokingly said a wrench was out of place in a tool drawer. Yup, same seriousness, next generation.

One young lady was the designated (probably volunteer) PR person for her team. When queried about her career plans after high school, without batting an eye, she said she wanted to be in journalism. She simply loved to interview people... the smile and poise at which she answered questions, proved as much.

Another similarity? You bet. I know quite a few women that write about Linux and are technical experts, in their fields.

Virtually every team had sponsorships, as well. And, I'm not talking one-man company sponsors. I'm talking big name vendors like NASA, Disney, Snap-On Tools and Bosch. The children managed the fund raising and several teams I talked to had budgets in the neighborhood of $30K. Perhaps the open source community should collaborate with some of these kids.

As if accomplishment and excellence were not enough, participants are required to keep good grades, as per the rules. Several adult advisers I talked to said that being on a robot team actually brought up quite a few student's grades.

During a break for lunch, I even saw some of the teams wolfing down pieces of 6 foot subs while chasing it with Coke. The similarities just went on and on.

There you have it, my take on these monster kids that will be taking over the high tech world, probably including Linux and open source, in the next few years.

As I left the arena, I couldn't help notice the unassuming late model station wagon packed with a rack of 1U computers, several WiFi routers, batteries, inverters, servos and a ho st of antennas on the top, prominently parked right in front.

It was UCF's new entry for the DARPA Grand Challenge robotic vehicle competition.

There on a 19-inch monitor was a Linux desktop displaying the motion of objects (people) picked up by the SICK sonar sensors, as they passed in front of the vehicle.

And, as I walked by, I smiled, knowing that many of those extraordinary kids would notice that Linux screen, too.