Kids devise a solution to stop distracted driving with project for FIRST LEGO League

(Photo courtesy of the Icebreakers)

Before they’re even old enough to drive a car, a team of kids competing in FIRST LEGO League robotics are already thinking about ways to prevent distracted driving and the dangers that can come from using a smartphone behind the wheel.

The Icebreakers, out of Redmond, Wash., are competing alongside other teams this year in the “City Shaper Challenge,” finding ways to make the world a better place through science, technology, engineering and math.

The team of six is made up of fourth grader Aniruddh Gatla and sixth graders Prajwal Prashanth, Rishit Behera, Rishita Bavandla, Siddarth Tangutur and Yashaswi Sekhar Gatla. This is the team’s second season.

In FLL, teams build LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface, but they must also take part in an innovation project, which involves research and outreach in the community. The Icebreakers chose Distracted Driving Due to Electronics, commonly referred to as E-DUI, as their project.

“Distracted driving is a major cause of crashes and traffic problems on the road,” the team wrote on its website. “As future responsible road drivers that will get behind the wheels in the next few years, one of our major concerns is our own safety on the roads, especially due to other distracted drivers that do not have their full attention on the road. We believe it is high time we have a solution for this menace.”

(Screenshots courtesy of Icebreakers)

The Icebreakers devised a solution that relies on software on a phone and software and hardware in a vehicle. Chiefly, they want a phone application that detects motion and cannot be disabled by a driver during that motion. The product would also rely on sensors in a car steering wheel that would detect when a driver has removed his hands from the wheel. Passengers would not be subject to the same device lockout.

And while Washington state has enacted its own laws to deal with distracted drivers, the Icebreakers don’t want drivers to even get to the point of being pulled over and ticketed, or worse.

“Our solution attempts to take away the voluntary action on part of the driver,” they wrote. “Our solution will trust technology over human action. You cannot unlock the phone by simply saying ‘I am not Driving’ — such a human action on the phone will have to be authenticated to unlock the phone.”

RELATED: Kids on FIRST LEGO League team take idea for safer streets all the way to city officials

The team has shared its research, obtained feedback and improvised their solution with AAA Washington, the University of Washington Mechanical Engineering Department, Columbia University, and Xevo, a connected car software manufacturer based in Bellevue Wash.

They are also working with the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Bellevue School District transportation team, and Toyota, sharing their research and figuring out options to productize that research.

The Icebreakers are coached by Ramjee Tangutur and Chandra Sekhar Gatla, both senior software engineers at Microsoft, and mentored by Manikyam Bavandla, also a senior software engineer at Microsoft, and Rama Domakonda, internet sales manager for UsedGadgets LLC.

As a coach and also as a parent, Tangutur is happy for the kids to get the STEM exposure while participating in FIRST LEGO League. He is amazed by the amount of time the kids have spent researching their innovation project, working as a team to come up with a solution while also working on solving the robot missions — learning to program and understanding the mechanics of the robot.

Here’s a video of the team’s robot running through the “City Shaper” paces:

“The overall learning is immense, be it from their own research or sharing and from feedback from various people like AAA or University of Washington,” Tangutur told GeekWire. “Winning awards at the qualifiers is just icing on the cake. I think FIRST and LEGO is doing a commendable job in promoting STEM education amongst kids. I feel every kid should have the opportunity to participate in FIRST, be it for a competition or simply to learn. This will get them interested in STEM education for sure.”

Speaking of those awards, the Icebreakers did well on Dec. 14 when they competed in a FLL qualifier at Chinook Middle School in Bellevue.  They received the Robot Performance award and Innovation Project award.

And they’ll be moving on to the FIRST LEGO League Washington State Semifinals on Jan. 19.

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