Posted on February 24, 2012

High School Robotics Team, PG&E Mentor Visit the White House

By Maureen Bogues

Greybots team captain Sean Murphy poses with PG&E’s Larry Price in front of the White House.

Greybots team captain Sean Murphy poses with PG&E’s Larry Price in front of the White House.

It’s not every day that you can accompany a robot to the White House. But that’s exactly what PG&E’s Larry Price did when he attended the second annual White House Science Fair as a technical mentor to the Atascadero High School Greybots.

The Greybots are the champion robotics team that last year won the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics World Championship competition in St. Louis, Mo.

Price, a senior advising engineer and emergency diesel generator system engineer at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, has been mentoring the robotics team for the past decade.

He traveled with student team captain Sean Murphy, and the team’s 120-pound robot, Titan, a mechanical, electrical and computerized wonder made of machined aluminum beams, pulleys, motors, gears and pneumatics that sits about 5 feet high and looks like a giant blue and orange Erector-Set toy. As the largest and most sophisticated fair exhibit, it attracted a lot of attention.

“The White House staff coordinating the event, as soon as they saw it, they said ‘We want you right in the entryway of the Entrance Hall (at the White House),’ ” Price said. Titan’s abilities include playing a game in which it picks up three different inflatable shapes and then places them on pegs on a wall during hectic competition bouts with five other teams (three against three) on a half-court-sized competition field. Titan can also deploy a 3-ounce mini-robot that rapidly climbs a 10-foot pole.

Price and Sean were guests of President Obama and of FIRST, a nonprofit founded in 1989 to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Student Robot Demonstration at the White House

Atascadero High School student Sean Murphy sets up Titan, the team’s 120-pound robot, at the White House.

The trip went smoothly, except for one part: transporting Titan—which, with its crate and related gear, weighed about 500 pounds—from the hotel to the White House. After making the cross-country trip on a cargo plane, the robot became enmeshed in logistics and security-related miscommunication among staffers at the hotel, the FIRST office and the White House

“I don’t think anybody had a handle on what needed to happen,” Price said. Finally, after many phone calls and much running around, he and Sean got the required approvals and loaded the robot into a rental van, arriving at the White House with only minutes to spare. Titan was an instant hit.

Price attributes his success in this adventure to his PG&E training.

“My troubleshooting and make-it-happen skills came in very handy, but that was a little bit stressful…I was envisioning a science fair and no robot to display. It would have been embarrassing,” he said with a laugh.

If Price has one regret, it is that President Obama didn’t get to see Titan; the president was whisked away due to an emergency before touring the Entrance Hall exhibits at the fair.

The whole experience, though, was overwhelmingly positive, Price said. Highlights included speeches by President Obama to the student participants; and speeches to the mentors by Valerie B. Jarrett, a senior advisor and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls; and by then-Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, whom Price also chatted with. He also met John Dudas, president of FIRST Robotics, and U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, who invited him to the Capitol building.

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