Frankel robotics team members crowd around a robot they made.

Frankel robotics team represents U.S. in Israel at international competition.

A recent morning visit to Frankel Jewish Academy found normally bustling hallways uncharacteristically calm, with an occasional teacher sighting replacing the rumpus of students traversing the terrain. Parent-teacher conferences were the cause. 

Yet, despite being cloistered in a science lab, the sounds of tinkering — interlaced with an occasional harrumph from frustration — indicated not every student chose to sleep late that day.

Sitting at a lab table staring befuddled at the immobile robotic car in front of him was Jonah Weinbaum, a junior from Bloomfield Hills, who offered a brief assessment on why the machine was ignoring its master.

“It’s being stubborn,” he explained. “It’s been, (pause), difficult.”

Pleasantries exchanged, Weinbaum turned back to his laptop and the task of making a collection of gears, wires and circuits move. The quick conversation underscored the urgency he and his cohorts — three other juniors and a sophomore — were feeling in advance of an upcoming robotics contest the school entered. Nearly four months of planning and coding were quickly ceding to the time for applying spit shine. 

The tournament, called the RoboTraffic Competition, takes place the day this article lands in mailboxes, March 22, and is held annually at the Israel Institute of Technology — commonly referred to as the Technion — in Haifa, Israel.

RoboTraffic began as a small event in 2009 involving just five Israeli schools. Sponsored, in part, by World ORT Kadima Mada, the original goal was to test road safety through the building and racing of small robotic cars navigating simulated street conditions.

Since then, RoboTraffic has morphed into a global spectacle, with nearly 20,000 students across three continents and several countries meeting on the 327-acre Technion campus competing in multiple categories.

Robotics Team FJA: Sam Gawel, Sarah Phillips, physics teacher Eric Rapp, Science Department Chair and Robotics faculty adviser Nicholas Mantas, Jonah Weinbaum, Josh State and Elisha Cooper.
Team FJA: Sam Gawel, Sarah Phillips, physics teacher Eric Rapp, Science Department Chair and Robotics faculty adviser Nicholas Mantas, Jonah Weinbaum, Josh State and Elisha Cooper.

As the weeks have whittled to days, the ticking clock seemingly picks up speed.

Weinbaum, along with juniors Sam Gawel, Sarah Phillips and Josh State, divvied up responsibilities to maximize the group’s efficiency. Their fifth teammate, sophomore Elisha Cooper, was a proverbial 11th-hour substitution and joined the team only after another upperclassman dropped out last December. Given robotic programming’s complicated nature, the compressed timeframe was hardly helpful.

FJA, which is the sole team representing the United States this year, will compete in three of the competition’s seven categories: the Car Race; presenting a 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) model of a car’s steering system and; the Traffic Improvement Proposal.

Big Benefits

Erin Groves, the school’s director of General Studies, acknowledged the goals set forth for students competing in RoboTraffic have been “daunting” for Team FJA, but she expects the results to pay dividends — for both participants and Frankel — moving forward.

“We are always looking for ways to engage our students in competitions or projects that push them to collaborate, adapt new technologies and stretch their ‘perceived’ limits,” Groves explained. “There will be carryover from this experience, in both confidence and a base of knowledge, for FJA to participate in contests like RoboTraffic in the future.”

The word “daunting” seems appropriate given this is FJA’s first time competing at a high-tech rodeo. Last academic year, the school began a huge push to weave elements of STEM curricula across all subjects, both Jewish and general studies, leveraging the use of its new technology makerspace, Genesis Lab.

“This is a real trailblazer moment for us,” Groves added. “We’ve never participated in something like this as a school, and adding coding along with other science, tech, engineering and math-centric opportunities gives our kids a more dynamic education.” 

Necessity being the mother of invention, Team FJA has been midwifing its robot with little more than grit and determination to achieve some arguably Herculean goals — not the least of which is getting its car to operate. 

As Nicholas Mantas, the student’s faculty adviser and FJA’s science department chair, describes it, Team FJA has been forced to seek answers where none were easily within reach. He, along with fellow science teacher Eric Rapp, have been shepherding the students through the process of creating and refining their projects.

Juniors Sarah Phillips and Jonah Weinbaum, Team FJA’s designated coders, have spent countless hours examining lines of code in an effort to make their robot drivable for the RoboTraffic robotics Competition.
Juniors Sarah Phillips and Jonah Weinbaum, Team FJA’s designated coders, have spent countless hours examining lines of code in an effort to make their robot drivable for the RoboTraffic Competition.

“My areas of expertise are chemistry and mathematics, and I have no coding experience myself, so I’m learning alongside the kids on this one; nor do they have the luxury of a mentor in the building to go to for answers,” Mantas explained. “They’ve essentially been figuring this out on their own, which has been inspiring to see.”

By way of example, its newest and youngest member, Cooper, just 15, was tasked with developing a mechanical steering system, and Mantas said it’s been nothing short of “amazing” how she’s risen to the challenge.

“Elisha knew nothing about the CAD software and yet was given the task, and on her own figured out how to work the software,” he said.

“Trying to learn robotics from scratch has been the ultimate challenge for me,” she explained. “I have definitely poured countless hours into this and I can’t wait to see the finished product.”

Weinbaum and Sarah Phillips are the team’s two coders and have spent weeks writing code in the “C” programming language, which is to coders as Latin is to linguists.

“It has been difficult to communicate ideas and work on the code when only one person could do it at a time,” Phillips said. “I’ve learned better ways of working with other people.”

Multiple Challenges

Weinbaum, the team’s sole member foregoing that free Tuesday off hoping to gain some traction making the robotic car mobile, said the impetus for joining the group stemmed from a hobby — and it hasn’t been easy.

“Let me start by saying there have been loads of challenges,” he said. “The main challenges are the professional grade systems in the car that use PIC microcontrollers [because] they were designed many years ago and certainly not with the intention of high schoolers using them.”

For us 99 percent who have likely never heard of a PIC microcontroller — Programmable Interface Controller — they are programmable electronic circuits devised to carry out a range of tasks.

According to the electronics blog Kanda.com, examples abound: PIC microcontrollers can be programmed as timers or used to control production lines, and are found in most electronic devices, from alarms to computer control systems.

“This has definitely been humbling,” Weinbaum said. “When we first started, I wanted to make the car artificially intelligent, since neural networks and machine learning are my programming specialties, but I soon learned that getting it to move would be difficult.”

“We are always looking for ways to engage our students in competitions or projects that push them to collaborate, adapt new technologies and stretch their ‘perceived’ limits.”

— ERIN GROVES

The last challenge, which Gawel, 16, and State, 17, have each headed up, involves drafting a proposal for improving traffic safety. Their big idea, should it be deemed viable and ever brought to market, could conceivably be a lifesaver for anyone suffering from white-line fever, otherwise known as highway hypnosis.

“It was hard to brainstorm an idea that was workable,” State explained. “Most had problems, but it’s been very satisfying to know this one is so clever … once the logistics are figured out, getting places will be easier with fewer car-related deaths.”

In layman’s terms, the proposal suggests using existing facial recognition technology currently found on iPhone and Android devices that measures the surface area of the eyes to determine whether a user’s eyelids are drooping, indicating fatigue.

“Having little experience in the world of electronics and coding, I thought RoboTraffic would be a great way to challenge myself with something new,” Gawel said. “Josh and I ran into problems developing a new idea since many failed with further research, but I’ve been excited to push myself in a way that I hadn’t been challenged before.”

At the end of the day — and the competition is only a one-day event — whether they place first or last, Team FJA considers it a win just competing at this level with no prior experience.

The students, accompanied by Mantas, will have arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday, March 19, and spent the following day preparing for competition. Mid-week is set aside for touring and, following the competition, the six will head south on Friday to spend Shabbat in Jerusalem. The team will be on the red-eye home early next Sunday.

“It’s thrilling having our students play in Israel’s ‘start-up nation’ sandbox,” said FJA’s Head of School Rabbi Azaryah Cohen. “This project, with the help of dedicated instructors, has pushed our students to think creatively, applying their skills to improve the world around us.”

Ari Samuel is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photos by Bryan Gottlieb/Frankel Jewish Academy

What Is The Technion?

Established in 1912 during the Ottoman Empire, the Israel Institute of Technology, commonly known as the Technion, is a public research university in Haifa, Israel, and is the country’s oldest university.

Boasting four current Nobel Laureates in chemistry on its faculty, the Technion is often attributed as a driving force behind Israel’s growth in high-tech industry creation and innovation.

Do you enjoy the convenience of saving your documents on a flash drive? If so, you can thank inventors from Technion for that space saver. The list of inventions and accomplishments is fairly substantive, but for the sake of brevity we’ve chosen five worthy of some ink.

Azilect: A monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B) inhibitor developed in partnership with Teva Pharmaceuticals, Azilect (rasagiline) is a drug therapy used for treating early‐stage Parkinson’s disease.

Iron Dome: The dual-mission, counter-rocket, -artillery and –mortar air defense system, Iron Dome has been called “a game changer” for its ability to prevent air attacks by Israel’s enemies.

Argo ReWalk: The ReWalk is a walking assistance robotic suit that allows paraplegics, to stand, walk, climb stairs and drive. Time magazine ranked the ReWalk among the world’s Top 25 Inventions for 2013.

Life-saving Tissue: Using human embryonic stem cells, two Technion professors were first to create new heart muscle in the lab with its own blood supply that could replace cardiac tissue damaged by heart disease.

ExAblate System: A magnetic resonance imaging-guided focused ultrasound technology used to treat uterine fibroids in women that first came to market in 2004 for use in specific instances and gained approval in 2015 for all fibroids.

— Ari Samuel