Longmont students learn STEM skills from a girl’s request for a dragon

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On Wednesday, Belle Cress gave the robot dragon a pet muzzle as she stood at the innovation center surrounded by robotics students.

Purple, covered in scales, and about the size of a small dog, Belle’s dragon is a semi-autonomous social robot created by Arrow Electronics.

Frank Piotrowski, left, with Arrow Electronics and Belle Cress and his mother, Amber Borata, demonstrate a dragon robot Wednesday at the Longmont Innovation Center. (Kelsey Hammon)

Before snuggling around the dragon and feeding it silicone treats, students learned how Belle’s request for a dragon two years ago brought together designers, engineers and artists to create the unique winged beast.

Frank Piotrowski, head of the Arrow Electronics project management team, spoke about the engineering that allowed the dragon to move fluidly, blink its eyes, flap its illuminated wings and make cooing noises .

Designing Belle’s dragon began in 2019, shortly after Colorado Springs resident Belle was diagnosed with bone cancer in late 2018.

Belle’s mother, Amber Borata, said Wednesday that ever since her daughter saw the movie “How to Train Your Dragon,” she loved mythical creatures.

When Make-A-Wish Colorado, a nonprofit that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses, asked Belle what wish they could grant her, Borata said her daughter didn’t hesitate to ask them. say she wanted a dragon.

Make-A-Wish Colorado went to Arrow Electronics, a Centennial-based electronics parts distributor, with the request in 2019. After about two years of design, Belle’s Dragon was born.

A key to their design throughout the process was Belle. Piotrowski said the collaborators stayed in touch with Belle to get feedback on what she wanted to see in the dragon. Drawings Belle created of a flying purple dragon served as a design template for those involved with the project, Piotrowski said.

Belle received the dragon in March 2021. Although it was after completing her chemotherapy treatments, Borata said it helped her daughter, while she was sick, to make the drawings of the team working to bring life to his dragon.

Belle is now 15 and cancer free.

Piotrowski shared how details, such as the scales of the dragon, were the result of many trials. Initially, the scales clung to the dragon’s joints, so the designers had to reconfigure the placement of the material so that it didn’t interfere with the robot’s movement.

“Appreciate, especially after you start, that you’re going to have to revise some of your design concepts,” Piotrowski said. “Put time into any schedule to live with whatever you’ve designed. It will make a difference. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Piotrowski left students with some more advice as they consider pursuing their own engineering careers.

“As engineers, don’t think you just have to be the electrician or the mechanic,” Piotrowski said. “If you are the person with the bigger picture, you become more valuable to the company and the team you work for.”

Students got a chance to get a close look at Belle’s dragon, as well as a scaleless dragon replica so they could take a closer look at the robot’s inner workings.

Darragh Bennett, a 12-year-old Flagstaff Academy student, took a close look at the dragon mechanics on Wednesday.

“I like the compactness of the machinery and the way it all works together,” Bennett said.

Bennett, who has an interest in software, has been involved in robotics, even competing at the state level. Wednesday’s presentation taught Bennett that silicone is useful in engineering. Arrow’s design team used silicone to make treats and toys for the dragon. A radio frequency identification chip built into the accessories helps it distinguish between something to eat or a toy.

Belle demonstrated all her dragon can do on Wednesday. She stroked the dragon’s muzzle, gave it treats, and showed how its wings expanded.

When asked what Belle hopes other young people will get from her visit to the dragon on Wednesday, she replied, “That anything is possible.”

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