By 2nd Lt. Darren Domingo, 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 27, 2015
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- (Editor's Note: "I am SCHRIEVER" is a diversity campaign dedicated to recognizing the diversity within our base as well as highlighting the way this diversity makes us stronger and better able to ensure mission success.)
Stop for a minute and look around you. There are probably countless objects in your vicinity that stemmed from the imagination of another person. We call those people inventors.
Airman 1st Class Ford Grundberg, 3rd Space Operations Squadron Defense Satellite Communications System satellite vehicle operator, is one of those inventors.
In the final stretch of his high school education, Grundberg worked with a team of classmates to accomplish something he never would have imagined just a few years earlier - create a robot that could potentially save lives.
The Lemelson Foundation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recognized the invention and eventually introduced it to President Barack Obama.
This is quite an achievement for Grundberg who was born and raised in Natick, Massachusetts, a small suburb on the outskirts of Boston. A quick Google image search of "Natick, MA" will populate your computer screen with images reminiscent to one of those feel-good Hallmark cards.
For Grundberg however, life wasn't so pleasant when at age 13, his parents separated.
"I took it pretty hard. I didn't really understand it," said Grundberg. "One of the ways I revolted as a kid was to always get mad at my parents and not do my homework. It was kind of a cry for attention as a child."
For years, Grundberg's grades suffered, but his test scores remained high. He continued this pattern into his freshman year when he met his lacrosse coach, Doug Scott. Scott became Grundberg's teacher in a robotics class his junior year.
"Ford was not a strong student, but I could see he had grit and our team needed that," said Scott.
At first, their relationship was a clash of "old school vs. new school." Scott saw through the false performance of his student. He realized Grundberg's potential and wasn't going to let him off the hook.
Scott knew Grundberg needed to be challenged and pushed to the limit. Scott decided to test Grundberg's dedication and initially denied his request to join the Lemelson MIT InvenTeam his class had started. Scott's gut feeling checked out when Grundberg returned the next day to confront him about his teacher's decision and insist that he join.
Grundberg was successful.
Basically, Scott told Grundberg "I'm going to kick your butt, and you're going to do well," - tough love teaching for sure. Scott's concern as a mentor sparked a drive in Grundberg to not waste his life, but push his mind to work hard and reach new heights.
Thus, an inventor was born.
According to the Lemelson-MIT website, "Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams are comprised of high school students, educators, and mentors that receive up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems of their own choosing."
Scott challenged Grundberg and the rest of his InvenTeam to identify a problem in their local community.
They went to the people in town who were most likely to have problems that needed solving - the Natick Fire Department.
"My challenge was for them to identify a problem that the fire dive team had," said Scott. "The students met with the firefighters and worked with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute early on to determine what problem they would focus on."
Fire fighters explained one of the things they hated most was going ice diving for search and rescue missions to needlessly search for bodies that weren't there. A combination of freezing temperatures, lack of light and thin-iced surfaces equaled an extremely dangerous situation. To fix their problem, Grundberg's team decided to build a robot that would remove divers from those situations to mitigate potential hazards of responders getting injured, or worse, in frozen ponds.
"Those guys seem to have pretty hard lives so we figured we'd try to help them out," said Grundberg.
The team wrote an invention proposal to the Lemelson program at MIT and won a $13,000 grant. They had one year to make it happen.
"Ideas are easy, inventing is not," laughed Grundberg.
According to Grundberg, the most difficult part of constructing the robot was establishing the distribution of weight. It was a large machine that included a long crane which extended off the base. The aim was to figure out how to let the robot successfully carry out its functions while keeping a proper center of mass and not falling through the ice.
"It was all student-run, Mr. Scott was just there to make sure we didn't take $13,000 and run away," laughed Grundberg. "Whenever we hit a roadblock he would offer small suggestions, but never participated - he was a true mentor in that aspect."
The Natick InvenTeam spent thousands of hours on the project and created a robot that fits in a fire safety vehicle and is driven to an ice hole where a victim may have fallen in. Upon deploying the robot onto the ice, it is turned on and controlled by video game controllers hooked up to a laptop. The vehicle then drives out over a hole in the ice where it drops a submersible camera into the water and from there can locate a potential victim.
During the next three years, their invention brought them to three different platforms to share their work.
In 2013, they attended EurekaFest, a Lemelson-MIT celebration designed to inspire and empower young inventors. The Natick InvenTeam shared their invention with MIT professors and other inventors.
"Ford and his teammates were showcasing their invention at MIT and Ford had the attention of a gentleman for about 15 minutes and gave a complete breakdown of the system and how it worked," Scott explained. "We went into an auditorium and that person got up to speak. Ford turned to me with an expression of shock and pointed at the person realizing he had given a 15 minute talk to Ian Waitz, Dean of Engineering."
Last year, the robot and some members of the team (excluding Grundberg, who was at technical school) went to the White House Science Fair.
"It was pretty cool seeing [pictures of] the President drive it around in one of his offices," said Grundberg. "It was definitely one of the more satisfying things I've seen with the invention."
Grundberg, the team and the robot made an appearance at the Lemelson Foundation 20th anniversary Sept. 18, 2015 in Washington D.C.
"I was lucky enough to attend in D.C. and present our invention to the group of inventors and general public that were there in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History," said Grundberg.
His eyes lit up when talking about the inventors he met at the anniversary.
"It was awesome," said Grundberg. "The first day I went I got to listen to the inventor of the digital camera, the woman who first figured out how to split molecules and a man who figured out how to make concrete 110 percent stronger. Just these brilliant, brilliant people see these problems that no one else can see and are like 'I know how to fix it.'"
Grundberg walked into a room of strangers and left feeling like he belonged.
"It's funny, because I look at them like, 'you're so brilliant and you inspire me to do so much,' and then they come and talk to me about what I did and they're like 'I wish I could have been like you at that age,'" he laughed in disbelief.
Today, the invention is currently a prototype and is not yet being actively utilized by the fire department. The Natick InvenTeam were unable to progress the build due to going separate ways for college/careers. Currently, MIT is still working to secure the patent.
Scott is proud of his former student's accomplishments.
"Ford is an extremely caring person and puts the team above himself," shared Scott. "Ford has proven he is capable of impressive accomplishments and can communicate his knowledge. I would take Ford over many of my former 'A' students, he caught on a little late in high school, but his work ethic combined with his intelligence is second to none."
Grundberg, inspired by the first robot he and his classmates created, is still pursuing inventions.
"That whole process was where I discovered my niche - I want to continue inventing for the rest of my life," he said.