Ten-year-old Davis Fortenberry's m3pi robot won first place in the IEEE competition in Orlando.

Photo by Alan Spearman

Ten-year-old Davis Fortenberry’s m3pi robot won first place in the IEEE competition in Orlando.

Davis Fortenberry, 10, rolled out his robot in a college-level competition in Orlando earlier this month and mopped up, save for the jaws on the floor.

With bangs, barely a care about girls and two feet shorter than the competition, this one-kid team outmaneuvered most college teams at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Southeastern competition.

“Actually it was kind of exciting; I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Davis, a fifth-grader from Piperton.

“When I explained to them how old I was, what grade I was in and that I did have a robot, I think they were afraid of me,” he said.

Out of 54 teams, only Florida A&M-Florida State University College of Engineering, University of Alabama and Mississippi State scored higher.

“This is a very, very intelligent boy,” said Regina Hannemann, researcher at the University of Kentucky and chairwoman of IEEE District 3 student activities committee.

“A 10-year-old doing this level of programming is astonishing,” she said.

Dan Kohn, assistant professor at the University of Memphis, was struck by Davis’ calm.

“He fit right in, which was just absolutely incredible. I heard him strike up a conversation with a university student. It wasn’t a conversation of a 10-year-old talking to a university student. It was a conversation of equals.”

Earlier, competitors had complained about Davis’ appearance in the contest, sure the boy was showing off someone else’s work.

But when Hannemann announced Davis’ first-place win in the open competition, the room erupted in a standing ovation, the only one all weekend.

“It was as much relief as anything,” Kohn said. “The problem all engineers see is there is such a lag in the United States for science, technology, engineering and math.

“When you see a young man achieving so much at 10 years old, OK, there is hope for us,” he said.

Davis, who has tinkered with robots since he was 5, built his “davibot” in a week, starting with an m3pi (“a robot in itself, really”) as the base.

He added an Arduino (Italian microcomputer that tells the base unit whether to go left, right, straight ahead), then designed components for measuring contest specifics: voltage, capacitance, temperature and waveform.

Contest rules also say robots must be completely autonomous, which means no remote controls or human interaction after competition starts.

“I’m just learning what my dad and brother taught me, and I’m applying it to my work,” Davis said. “So far, it’s been working out.”

He attends Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online school approved by the Tennessee legislature last year.

It allows parents to tailor the home-based curriculum, which turned out to be the critical loophole allowing him to qualify to compete.

“I read over rules thoroughly,” said Davis’ father, Robert Fortenberry, senior vice president of technical services at Cook Systems.

“I could not find anywhere that there was any age limit at all. The requirement was that they have to be an IEEE member.”

Student IEEE membership requires a focus on engineering and computer programming. “They assume that is going to be at the university level,” Fortenberry said.

Their older son, Madison — 19 and a senior at the University of West Florida — also competed as a high school student because he was enrolled in college courses.

Madison was also to compete last weekend. When he got sick the day of the competition, Davis ran his brother’s robot team, plus his own.

“They’re just kids,” Fortenberry said. “We’ve tried to teach them to use their time wisely and exchange it for something valuable. There is nothing more intrinsically valuable than knowledge.”

— Jane Roberts: (901) 529-2512

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Comments » 7

    MemphisTigersFootball writes:

    Great job!

    GrizTitansCubsFan writes:

    Outstanding! Congrats Davis!

    Larry_D writes:

    Good work Davis! I know your Dad is very proud of you!

    grammargirl writes:

    I predict that in about seven years, MIT and Cal-Tech will be calling young Mr. Fortenberry. Congratulations and best of luck to you, Davis, and to your family.

    synapse writes:

    Good going, kid.

    Can you build a protocol droid to help your mom next?

    LarsJ writes:

    Great story!

    OldHippieChick writes:

    The United States has no boundries if we will enable our children through care, education and respect.

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