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Stinky the Robot, Four Kids And a Brief Whiff of Success

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page C01

Stinky is one ugly robot, a raggedy contraption constructed of crudely painted, cheap plastic pipes pasted together with gobs of the foul-smelling glue that gave the monstrosity its name.

Stinky's creators didn't look all that impressive, either -- four teenage guys in baggy pants and sneakers, all of them illegal Mexican immigrants attending Carl Hayden High School in funky West Phoenix.

When Stinky arrived at last year's Marine Advanced Technology Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition -- an underwater robotics contest sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Research -- it was greeted with barely suppressed snickers. Nobody expected Stinky to compete with the robot from MIT, a handsome machine created by 12 elite engineering and computer science students and decorated with a sticker from ExxonMobil, the company that donated $5,000 to the MIT team.

But the kids from Hayden High beat MIT and the rest of the competition -- an amazing upset chronicled in an inspiring story in the April issue of Wired magazine. Americans love a tale of scrappy underdogs triumphing against long odds, and "La Vida Robot" by Joshua Davis is a classic. It's got all the ingredients of a feel-good movie of the week -- colorful characters, high drama, low comedy and a happy ending.

Well, a sort of happy ending.

It began when a couple of Hayden science teachers put up fliers offering to coach a team in the contest, which requires the construction of a remote-controlled robot that can explore a sunken mock-up of a submarine.

Four kids signed up: Cristian Arcega, the school's science whiz, who lived in a wooden shack attached to his parents' trailer. Lorenzo Santillan, a former gang member who loves fixing cars. Oscar Vazquez, an ROTC student with leadership skills. And Luis Aranda, a big, burly kid with the muscle to wrestle the 100-pound robot into place.

They raised $800 from local businesses and built Stinky out of PVC pipes and off-the-shelf computer parts. They tested it in a local pool, then headed to Santa Barbara last summer for the contest.

"The Carl Hayden teammates tried to hide their nervousness, but they were intimidated," Davis writes. "Lorenzo had never seen so many white people in one place."

Immediately, they had a problem: When Aranda lowered Stinky into the pool, they realized they had a leak. Not only did they have to re-solder every wire in the machine overnight, Vazquez told his teammates, but they also had to find something absorbent to keep moisture away from the circuitry.

"Absorbent?" Santillan asked, recalling countless TV ads. "Like a tampon?"

Soon, Santillan was in the nearest supermarket, trying to work up the courage to ask a young woman for advice on which brand of tampons might work best in an underwater robot.

The woman laughed and made her recommendation. "I hope you win," she said.

And win they did, copping the grand prize after Stinky performed a task the MIT robot couldn't -- sucking fluid from a tiny container 12 feet under water. They also won the awards for best design and best technical writing.

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