Since last fall, nearly 500 FIRST®LEGO® League (FLL) teams of girls and boys ages 9 to 14 from all over the world, have been busy creating inventions to help seniors lead better lives. Yesterday, the winners of the FLL Global Innovation Award program were announced.
FLL is known for introducing teams of young students to real-world engineering challenges by building LEGO-Mindstorm robots to compete on a thematic playing surface. But the teams also research and build non-LEGO inventions and submit them to the competition, with a chance to win cash prizes and support from product marketing experts.
For the 2012-2013 season, the FLL teams conducted research and developed inventions to help seniors become more independent, engaged and connected in their communities.
A real winner
The winning invention, submitted by team “NeXT GEN” from Oakland, Md., is an assistive gripper that helps seniors pick up pills or other small objects that are difficult to retrieve with a conventional claw or magnetic-type device.
The invention, called the “Gramma-Jamma,” earned the team a $20,000 cash prize from the Global Innovation Award’s Founding Sponsor, XPRIZE.
“Our team determined that the inability to grasp small objects was a fundamental problem for senior citizens,” said NeXT GEN team member Tori Miske. “Most existing grabbers are unable to pick up small items or they require such precise positioning that seniors are unable to operate them successfully.”
From a Cornell University web video, the team learned about a universal jamming technology that allows industrial robots to grasp objects. “We decided to apply jamming technology for human use to develop a gripper for seniors,” Tori said.
The result looks something like a bean bag fixed on a cone-shaped base at the end of a wand.
“Basically it is a balloon partly filled with jammable material (we used coffee grounds) on the end of a stick,” explained team member Jessica Storck. “We put a vacuum pump to suck the air out and make it form around the small object. Then we put a valve to let the air back into the balloon and release the object.”
How it works
To work the gripper, a person holds the handle and places the balloon on top of a small object on the ground, such as a pill, coin or piece of jewelry.
While putting pressure on the object, the operator holds down a button on the handle, activating the pump. This sucks air out of the balloon, causing the coffee grounds inside to collapse around the object and hold it firmly in place as the wand is lifted up and the pill retrieved.
The NeXT GEN team worked with seniors at the Oakland Nursing Rehabilitation Center to improve their design. “We’ve had many seniors test out our prototypes and have said they want to buy [the Gramma-Jamma],” said team spokesman Jonah Facciolli.
Two more winners
One of two other finalist teams, called “Lucky is our Dog” from Columbus, Ohio, invented “The Buddy,” a motion sensor that monitors for movement in a senior’s home and calls pre-programmed emergency contacts if no motion is detected for a certain amount of time. This invention allows seniors to live independently and safely.
The other finalist team, the “Rockford Christian Royal Narwhals” from Rockford, Ill., invented The “Magnetic Plug Adaptor” (MPA), a safe, easy-to-use alternative to the traditional electric plug that uses magnetic power to keep an appliance plugged in, and easily attaches and detaches from the wall. The MPA’s safety features include an easy grip and operational lights, indicating if the plug is ready for use and helping seniors locate the MPA in low-light situations.
The two finalist teams each earned $5,000 to help move their inventions along in the patent process. In addition, all three teams will receive expert support and in-depth intellectual property reviews from the Award’s “Go-To-Market Sponsor,” Edison Nation.
“Winning this award has reinforced my hopes of becoming a biomedical engineer, and has given me more confidence,” said Tori.
After five million online votes helped to determine the top 20 semi-finalist teams, a panel of expert judges reviewed the submissions, narrowing down the list to the three finalist teams who gathered at the 3rd Global Innovation Award ceremony, held at the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO).
“Science is usually not done by one individual,” Teresa Stanek Rea of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office told the finalists. “It’s usually a team.”
The FIRST LEGO League is one of four programs offered by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen that inspires kids’ interest in science and technology careers.