Tired of digging around in your pockets for your keys, or struggling to get them into the lock while your dogs bark at you through the window?

The Cornerstone Academy Robotics Team may have solved your problem.

The team recently claimed a national prize with their remote-operated, self-opening door and hydraulic arm. It may sound complicated, but to team member Ben Still, 15, it's simple.

"I just thought it would be cool having a TV remote to open my door," Ben said. "I've had a ton of people come up and say 'I want to buy one of those.' "

Ben, along with the other five members of the team, build their own machines, be it a miniature tank, a toy submarine or an automatic potato shooter.

The members of the 4-year-old team usually gather at a home for a robotics course offered by the tiny private school twice a week, usually dedicating eight hours of class time in addition to the time they spend on their own side projects.

At a recent meeting, Brandon Harris, 16, was finishing his work on a tank that could navigate through mazes and could sense and destroy weak points in a wall upon reaching dead ends. Jeff Marchand, 17, was designing an automatic potato shooter and rebuilding his grandfather's motorcycle, a 1967-model BMW R60.

Despite the group's small size, they've found success when competing against other similar clubs across the nation.

Earlier this year, the club joined together to build a remote-operated, self-opening door and a hydraulic arm. With that project, the students claimed the first-place prizes for radio-controlled robotics and electronic research in the Technology Student Association's 2006 Conference, held late June in Dallas.

Brandon and Ben designed the door that won the electronic research and experimentation competition. The door features a sensor that can detect movement from 24 inches away. A display on the door tells the person to "STOP" when within this operating range for the two-button remote.

When pushing one of the buttons, a small motor opens and closes the bolt while a larger servo motor operates the door. Both work in sequence to replace the function of the simple key and door knob.

The team's other two members, Jeff Marchand, 17, and Kirk Fraiser, 15, designed the robotic arm, built to carry kickballs through an obstacle course.

Both projects dominated in the state TSA competition before placing first in the Dallas competition, thrilling their teacher and coach Jeff Knack, who credited their teamwork for going this far.

"We had no intentions to go to the nationals at the beginning of the state conference, but because of the encouragement of the judges at both categories, we went to nationals based upon their confidence in our entries," Knack said.

Entering Dallas, the team pitted their two projects against other creations including color specturm analyzers, suction devices and computer-controlled robotic arms, Ben said.

All four team members hope to pursue engineering careers.

"Just give me a bunch of computer parts and I'll make sure they all fit together," said Brandon. "I do a lot of work with my friends' computers. It keeps my brain very well lubricated."


ALEXANDER COHN/The Gainesville Sun 
Cornerstone Robotics Club members Jeff Marchand, left, and Kirk Fraiser manipulate a radio controlled vehicle equipped with a robotic arm. One set of controls moves the arm, while other controls the vehicle holding the arm. The team, also made up of Brandon Harris and Ben Still and coached by Jeff Knack, won at the state and national levels of Technology Student Association. For next year's competitions the team hope to build a camera-equipped submarine.