Robotics, the ultimate challenge

It’s crunch week for Knight Vision, Liggett’s robotics team.

This weekend is the team’s first meet of the season. Team coordinator Kim Galea and her assistant Tiffany Meyer are feeling pretty good about it. Based on the results of another round of competition last week, they know their team’s robot is able to do things other schools could not do.

The team is hard at work.

This year’s challenge is called Ultimate Ascent and the rules, right from the FIRST Robotics website are as follows: “Two competing alliances (compete) on a flat, 27 x 54 foot field. Each alliance consists of three robots, and they compete to score as many (Frisbee-style) discs into their goals as they can during a two-minute and fifteen-second match. The higher the goal in which the disc is scored, the more points the alliance receives.The match begins with a fifteen-second Autonomous Period in which robots operate independently of driver inputs. Discs scored during this period are worth additional points. For the remainder of the match, drivers control robots and try to maximize their alliance score by scoring as many goals as possible. The match ends with robots attempting to climb up pyramids located near the middle of the field. Each robot earns points based on how high it climbs.”

So, basically, the kids have to figure out how to create a robot that can accurately toss Frisbees and climb something. Still, Galea said the students and she feel this is the hardest challenge in their three years of competition.

“We began with the idea that we’d just work on the climbing mechanism,” Galea said. “We didn’t know how we would be able to create a shooter for the discs, but the higher you climb, the more points you get. We focused on the climbing because we figured we’d do one thing really well and get as many points as possible there instead of doing everything only sort of mediocre.”

But the 21 students on the team — nine are freshman and the other twelve are divided evenly among the other three grades — came up with a shooting arm that seems to work and also is able to pick discs up off the floor (something many of the robots at last weekend’s competition couldn’t do) while creating a strong climbing robot.

But it took a lot of work. FIRST, which sponsors the robotics competition around the world, announced the challenge on January 5. All participating teams got a box of parts, but no instructions on how to use them. That’s when the work began. Students gathered Mondays and Wednesdays after school for two hours, on Fridays for 5 1/2 hours and for eight hours on Saturdays.

In addition to Galea and Meyer, they brought in parent Ron Jachim, who has helped for three years and an outside mentor who has worked with another school’s robotics team for years. Parents have sent in food and pop (“It’s amazing how much pop 20 kids can go through in a weekend,” Galea says.) to fuel the marathon working sessions.

Others have been very generous, too, Galea said, the Stahl Groupe, the Wu Family and Becker Ventures have joined the school in putting up $16,000 to fund the building of the machine, which includes many parts not in the original starter kit.

“It’s a lot of work,” Galea said, “But the kids get so much out of it. In addition to the tech experience, they learn about programming, wiring electrical boards, how motors work and even some of the business aspects of the group.” And they learn about teamwork.

“The main concept of the meets is that everybody wants everybody else to succeed,” Galea said. “That’s why they call it a ‘cooperatition’ — it’s a competition, sure, but you often have to cooperate with another team to do well. If a part on someone’s robot fails and we have an extra one we give them ours and we know they would do the same.”

There’s also another possible payoff, Galea said. There is $16 million in scholarships to students who participate in FIRST robotics. The only two Liggett students who applied for the scholarships received grants to pay for their education, Galea said.

The first competition is Friday and Saturday at Waterford Mott High School, with a meet at Center Line High School the following weekend. This year, the team will participate in a third competition at the end of spring break. They can work on the robots between the meets to improve them and, they hope, make a mark at the state competition in April.

For more on FIRST Robotics, click here.

By Ron Bernas