We had an amazing Saturday thanks to a tip from one of Theo’s classmate’s mom.  There was a robot competition happening last Friday and Saturday between International teams with $3.5 million in prize money. The Robotics Challenge is one that has a real impact beyond the competition itself. The competition is really about improving technology in disaster relief response situations using robotics; the competition merely funds the research and innovation.

It’s a free event for the general public. You not only get to watch the robot teams compete in a series of tasks, but there are a number of booths that let you participate in hands-on demonstrations using robotic technologies. It’s a really fun experience for the kids and adults too.

We spent about three hours at the event, which was enough time to see one round of competition and fortunately for us we did see the First Place winner: Team KAIST. The challenges included walking out of a vehicle, opening a door, turning a wheel, cutting open a wall, removing tools from a shelf and finally walking up stairs. It was funny watching the audience react to each successful task with applause. It was like a nerdy sport competition. That’s not to say it was a bad thing, it was just kind of hilarious having a stadium full of people cheering on robots. We loved it.

The booths were interesting too. Our boys had opportunities to use a robotic hand to do tasks similar to what the competition robots did. They also were given robot licenses and controlled robots using game controllers. There were also demonstrations featuring some advanced robots from NASA, JPL, and many others in the robotics industry.


Theo has a real love for robots and both boys are taking a robot LEGO programming class for summer school. They came away with more excitement about robots and robotics as a possible choice in their careers. Of course at 9 years old, decisions are likely to change. What’s important though is they were each inspired and wanted to know more about what it takes to become a robot engineer.

Thanks DARPA for providing such a great event and we are sure to attend next year too!

I’ll leave you with this a video someone put together using footage from DARPA of robots falling. Unfortunately, the version with a WWE wrestling voiceover was removed by the copyright owners… You’re welcome.

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Adventures in Pinewood Derby Racing

On June 6, 2015, in Family, by Chris Baccus



For many years I would not consider letting the boys join Cub Scouts. The reason was the organization’s stance against allowing gay members from joining, that policy ended in 2013 and our boys joined scouts last year. What I didn’t realize is that there is still in-place today a policy against allowing gay leaders. Hopefully, that policy will change soon.

So while I’m not a fan of the continued discrimination against homosexual leaders, the scouts is an organization that is finally progressing and having families who are pro-gay rights active in scouts will hopefully end such archaic policies, because scouting is a fun time for kids and our boys wanted to join and are having a great time in it the past year.

As we neared the end of our first year in scouts, the marquee event – Pinewood Derby races – was upon us. This was the boys and my first Pinewood derby car builds. It was technically my second time doing it as I was once a Webelo Cub Scout and raced back in the early 1980s. Thirty plus years later here we were with a couple blocks of wood and the Internet.


Today is very different than my experience as a kid. The only kids who ever won were usually kids with a dad in engineering, physics, or a skilled woodworker. My dad wasn’t any of those things and neither was I at 10 years old. So we lost. In fact, it wasn’t too memorable, as I can’t even recall what my car looked like back then.

As a car nut and someone who has a decent garage of woodworking tools and I have even taken some woodworking classes in my past, we had a chance. We also had the power of YouTube, which opened up a lot of suggestions on how best to build a Pinewood Derby car.

The most significant video we found is The Science of the Pinewood Derby. This video was immensely helpful in how we approached our build.

We learned a lot about weight placement, smoothing tips and most significant the wheel configuration showing how to “ride the rails.”

Oscar and Theo looked at some online design templates. Oscar chose one and Theo passed wanting a simple wedge shape. The boys each worked on their cars with me out in the garage where I cut the blocks using a power handsaw and smoothed them out with an electric sander. They each help smooth the axles and sand the wood by hand.


Once the shape was done, we worked on the weights. I drilled 3/8” holes about a inch in front of the rear axle and filed each with tungsten metal weights. Then sealed each hole with wood putty. This gave the cars a clean look and the best weight placement.


The kids chose their paint colors and some transfer decals we found at a local hobby store. If you live near Pasadena, Hobby People is a great place to find what you need. We used spray paint and applied some primer before doing a few coats of the color they chose. Then we made a stripe on each car with the boys selected where and how thick they wanted it.


I finalized the assembly. Our local Pack let everyone do practice runs the Saturday before Sunday’s race. So we went down to do some trial runs. Initially we were getting smoked as the other families saw the same videos we did. I also hadn’t played around with the axles because I wasn’t sure if our track was free of flaws so we could run using the “ride the rails” technique. Watch the video to learn more, but basically you bend the axel nails to get the car to hug a side of the track so you minimize friction.

We finished our initial trial runs and I went back to the garage to tweak the axels. An hour later we went back to the practice and tested significantly faster. I made a few additional adjustments that evening.


Race day was a lot of fun. The competition was fierce. Oscar’s car was tearing it up and coming in first in all but one of his races. Theo’s was mostly placing third and once second. I must of bent Oscar’s axels in a more beneficial way.

In the end, Oscar won second place for his age group. Theo wasn’t too happy with me since he felt I hadn’t made his car as fast as I could.


We learned a lot in our first year. Next year we hope to get two cars to place and who knows maybe Theo will place first as I’m sure he’ll be on me to make his car faster than his brother’s…



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