High schoolers build robots, teams

New York Tech Valley Regionals bring high school students from around region

LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS CONTROL their robots from behind the alliance wall. Robots had to meet certain specifications and be controlled remotely, with the objective being to score goals. Students were organized into alliances consisting of three teams, which worked together to score as many points as possible.

On Friday, March 14, FIRST Robotics Competition arrived at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the 2014 New York Tech Valley Regional. Taking place in the East Campus Athletic Village, this was the first time that this competition was hosted at RPI. High school students from New York, Virginia, Michigan, and even Turkey and Canada participated with their club team to compete for the chance to go to Nationals in St. Louis, Missouri.

In teams ranging from few to hundreds of students, teenagers raised money to design and build a robot. Working as a team, they built and programmed a robot to fulfill a specific task or challenge set by FIRST. FIRST is composed of a board of directors, honorary directors, executive advisory board, and senior advisors. President Shirley Ann Jackson serves as a senior advisor for the organization.

Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, FIRST is an acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The program is designed to interest students of all ages in science, technology, engineering, and math. According to Craig Warner, an ambassador for FIRST and a start-up committee member for the competition here at RPI, “One of the goals of FIRST is to give kids equal opportunity in the science and engineering fields.” Furthermore, he states, “A committee of about four to 10 people helped organize the event today, with sponsors such as NASA, GE, and Time Warner donating money to make this event a success.”

Every January 1, a committee from FIRST comes up with a task or challenge for students to complete using robots. This year’s task was called, “Aerial Assist.” Aerial Assist is like a game, but for robots. It is played by two competing “alliances.” An alliance is composed of three robotics teams working together against another alliance. This year was really focused on teamwork. Each alliance had three robots and they played on a flat, 25 by 54 foot field, which had a lighting truss suspending over seven feet above the floor. Each match lasted two minutes and 30 seconds, and the objective was to score as many goals using two team-specific two foot diameter exercise balls. Points were awarded by scoring and working together. The more a team worked together to score, the more points their alliance received.

Beginning with a 10 second autonomous period, in which the robot moved without the control of a human driver, the robot begins with a ball and tries to score by throwing the ball through the goal. After the 10 second period, drivers control the robots via remote controls. The teams control their robots behind a clear, protective wall.

In a short amount of time, some teams in an alliance worked together to score over 90 points. Senior Jackie Gonya from Endicott TigerTronics, commented about building the robots saying, “It was a very interesting experience. There would always be some difficulty with the robots, so there was a lot of troubleshooting involved. It was fun though!” Gonya was involved in the club for four years after visiting a club fair. At the time, she was interested in engineering, but now she is looking to major in pharmaceutical science or chemistry in college. The TigerTronics was one of the 38 teams present at the competition. With about 16 to 17 members, everyone was busy with a specific job or task. When asked about how her team was doing, Gonya commented, “Team 2053 is doing well; our robot is driving forward and we are making high goals and tress shots so we are scoring a lot of points, we hope to become a finalist in tomorrow’s matches.”

The gym at ECAV was separated into two sections; one area was designated for matches and the other was the “Pit,” which was an area for teams to set up a space for their robot, computers and other for anything else they needed. In the Pit, safety glasses were required and teams were running in and out with their robots.

Each team competed in 12 or so matches between the two days. For the matches, the robot’s specifications must fall within a certain height and must weigh 120 pounds or less. These robots were also very costly; a team may spend an average of 30,000 dollars and one team, according to Warner, spent over 80,000 dollars on their robots. In order to afford the robots, teams try and get companies to sponsor them and donate money. Rensselaer was a sponsor for five teams that were present; The Rocketeers from Shenendehowa High School, The Falcons from Albany High School from Albany, Weapons of Mass Construction from Hudson High School, RoboRams from Amsterdam High School, and TroyBotics from Troy High School.

Chris Kissane, a junior and team captain of The Falcons, has been part of robotics since eighth grade. He uses Java to program the robots and says, “It can be very frustrating at times. We are always running into problems and something new happens constantly. But it’s still very rewarding.” Kissane is interested in attending RPI for computer science. At the time, The Falcons have played two matches and lost both. However, according to Kissane, “We scored all the points for the alliance, so we are scoring well; we just haven’t had much luck with our alliances.”

Hannah Ladd and Brianna Wood, both seniors and members of The Rocketeers, said, “The robots are battery powered, with catapult and roller collection systems.” They had many designs and merged ideas from past projects to make their robot for this year. The Rocketeers have over 100 people on their team and they meet Monday through Friday from 7–9 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9 am–6 pm. According to Ladd, “We treat and view this as a varsity sport. We put in a lot of hours and not everyone realizes how much time robotics takes up.”

According to Warner, “The kids want to be here. They are very passionate and work hard. They are very involved, enthusiastic, and professional about robotics.”