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Students Go for the ‘Technical Knockout’ In Robot Competition

The public address announcer invites the crowd to get ready to rumble, but it’s robots that are “rrrumbling” on the floor of this familiar San Diego venue.

It’s the first weekend of March, and Qualcomm Inc. is sponsoring the regional First Robotics competition, where machines built by high school teams compete against each other. Winners of the competition at Valley View Casino Center on Sports Arena Boulevard are headed to the national competition in April in St. Louis.

This year’s game, Aerial Assist, is an odd mashup of basketball and technology. Students design their robots to carry and shoot 2-foot inflatable balls through goals, while fending off each other. The basketball comparison goes only so far, however, since the goals are not horizontal hoops, but rather more like those of soccer or hockey. Robots operate autonomously for a portion of the game, so the competition is pretty software intensive. Toward the end, teams from various schools collaborate in a thre-on-three match.

The playing field is at one end of the arena, while the rest of the floor is occupied by pit areas, where students — some with top hats, Superman capes or colored hair drawn in gravity-defying spikes — prepare their robots. Organizers require everyone in the pits to wear safety glasses.

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Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) employees serve as mentors for many of these teams, and Navrina Singh, director of product management for Qualcomm, is one of the local executives most actively involved in First Robotics. In addition to giving back, the corporation wants to encourage the next generation of engineers.

Singh has one more concern. She helped found Qwise, an in-house Qualcomm organization working to foster more women leaders for the company. She wants to encourage more girls to go into engineering.

Singh likes to see all-girls teams get involved in First Robotics. She said mixed teams tend to pass over girls for engineering and technical jobs, assigning them roles in public relations and marketing.

One aspect of the latest competition that she especially likes is the collaborative focus, where students from different schools must work in an alliance on the court.

Carlsbad-based Nordson Asymtek (Nasdaq: NDSN) provided mentors for eight teams at the First Robotics regionals. Banners in the stands and team T-shirts recognized support from other organizations including Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. (NYSE: BAH), D&K Engineering Inc., the ecoATM unit of Outerwall Inc. (Nasdaq: OUTR), Leidos Inc. (NYSE: LDOS), the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command, Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC), Teradata Corp. (NYSE: TDC) and ViaSat Inc. (Nasdaq: VSAT).

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Steam-Powered Minds: Speaking of getting more students involved in engineering, Qualcomm will host the first SteamConnect Conference on March 28 at the Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall at company headquarters. Steam stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. Students, teachers, administrators, executives and political leaders are expected to attend and hear from dignitaries such as Chris Roe of the California STEM Learning Network and Craig Watson of the California Arts Council. More information is available at steamconnect.org.

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An Aviation Award: Northrop Grumman’s X-47B aircraft, the first unmanned plane to take off from an aircraft carrier and make a cable-arrested landing, won Aviation Week magazine’s Laureate Award recently. Employees at Northrop Grumman’s Rancho Bernardo offices oversee all the company’s unmanned aircraft, including the boomerang-shaped X-47B. The Pentagon will soon seek proposals for a carrier-based unmanned aircraft. Northrop Grumman plans to compete for the work. So does its Poway neighbor, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

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Out Into the World: Voxox Inc., the privately held San Diego-based company that makes cloud communication software, said that Lenovo (HKSE: 992) will ship 5 million laptop computers pre-loaded with Voxox. The companies will share revenue from anyone who uses the link. Voxox describes its software as a combination of Skype, Google Voice, eFax, Hightail and BabelFish.

Send San Diego technology news to bradg@sdbj.com.

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