During an unofficial competition last year, Upper Darby High School's robot took a hit, then another. Then the battery flew out.
Garrett Sapsis, 16, working in the pit crew, had about five minutes to come up with a temporary solution, "a heavy big metal piece of junk" to hold the battery in place. "It was a like a cage, but it worked," said Sapsis, a junior at Upper Darby and member of the school's Robotics club.
But the cage weighed around three pounds, too much for an official competition in which every ounce counts and the robot can't pass 120 pounds.
So this year, Sapsis and other team members created a lighter and sturdier battery mount, which is now one of their two patent-pending products. These inventions, as well as a business plan to sell them and other equipment online, helped the team earn several awards this year at FIRST Robotics regional competitions in New Orleans and Philadelphia, as well as the FIRST Robotics Championship Event in April in Atlanta.
As part of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the students had six weeks to create their robots, using a standard set of rules.
Sophomore Jennifer Knowlton, 16, had the idea for the first patent-pending product, a self-lubricating plastic that would make the robot's linear glides around 90 percent lighter. The group took Knowlton's successful idea of molding plastic into parts, tinkered with it, and came up with a new battery mount.
The battery hasn't fallen out since, and of the more than 1,300 FIRST groups in seven countries, Knowlton said, they were the only one to use patent-pending parts invented for the competition.
Joseph Maenner, a patent attorney who volunteered to work for the team pro bono, said the team members have secured provisional patents, which gives them a priority filing date. Within a year, they have to file regular patent applications that will be examined by the U.S. Patent Office.
The group already is thinking of how to sell the products.
"We're looking to create a retail sales division to truly become self-sustaining," said senior Rachel McKlindon, 18, who wrote the group's business plan.
The plan, to sell merchandise online, is still in its early stages, but McKlindon said the goal is to defray some of the cost of the group's approximate $35,000 budget. Like other Robotics clubs, Upper Darby relies heavily on corporate sponsors for funding - in this case, from PECO.
The business plan earned Upper Darby the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Entrepreneurship Award at the national competition in Atlanta. For McKlindon, who is more interested in business than building, the award shows the club's variety.
"People think that robotics is all engineering. There are so many different things you can do with it," said McKlindon, who plans to study marketing and management at Lehigh University starting in the fall.
But in the meantime, she doesn't mind giving up her nights, weekends or summer days to develop the business plan.
"Robotics is a second family. We're there for like 40 hours a week," McKlindon said of the club's 30-plus teenagers and about 10 adult mentors, including Joe Troy, a member's father; the district's manager of computer services; and the team's head coach. "We see them more than we see our parents.
For more information on the Upper Darby Robotics Team, visit www.team357.org.