Hillsboro High School isn’t engaged in a titanic sci-fi battle of machines taking over the planet, but six Trojan students and their advisers got a taste Saturday of the real world of robotics competition at the VEX Wildcat Robotics Roundup in Ponca City, Okla.
Robotics is the newest focus for a department that has already established a track record of success in technological competitions for high school students, including a national championship in radio-controlled transportation in 2008, technology instructor Creigh Bell said.
“Two years ago the Technology Student Association stopped the radio-controlled transportation competition, and said they were going to sanction VEX to run competition,” Bell said.
VEX Robotics is one of six companies in the business of promoting technology education, and operates a global network of student competitions utilizing their robotics equipment, Bell said. More than 4,000 teams from 20 countries participate in 250 VEX-sponsored events.
Students work in two-man teams to create four-wheeled robots capable of lifting and placing balls six inches in diameter into goals of varying heights.
While robot kits contain a collection of standard parts for constructing a robot that must fit inside an 18-inch cube, how a robot actually takes shape is left to the creativity and ingenuity of the students.
“We saw some other robots, but we pretty much just made it on our own,” senior Ben Loewen said.
Teams were working through Friday to build and tweak their robots for top performance.
“We have to get this to work so it’ll raise up and down,” senior Bret Mueller said, indicating a cage-like component. “It doesn’t even pull up. I don’t know why, though, it should.”
Bell was working and studying right along with his students, crafting his own robot, which is supposed to operate autonomously through pre-programmed commands as well as being operated wirelessly by a driver. The competition includes a brief period of independent operation by a robot before a driver takes charge of it.
“I was up until midnight last night working on my robot, trying to get it ready to download program information so it will run autonomously,” Bell said. “We don’t have this worked out yet, and we need it Saturday. If we don’t have it, we sit during autonomous mode and wait until driver mode starts and go from there.”
Unlike the year Hillsboro won the radio-controlled transportation title, Bell’s students have been able to work on their projects in class during the school day, which Bell said has been beneficial.
“We get more involvement if it’s in the classroom, because students are there and they don’t have to give up their time from after basketball practice or on Saturdays,” Bell said. “I would like to see more competitive events incorporated into normal classrooms.”
Bell’s students have different reasons for their involvement with the robotics learning module.
“We have some that are going into engineering in college, and this is in the engineering career pathway program. Others just like building things with their hands,” Bell said. “It’s just like a wood project, except now you have a few gears and sprockets and motors and batteries. It ties in math, and some science.”
The technical aspects of building and operating robots weren’t the only challenges preparing for the competition. VEX creates a new competition format each year, and this year’s version, VEX Gateway, is complex.
“It’s probably one of the most complicated competitions I’ve been involved in,” Bell said. “There are 15 pages of rules to go with it. The major goal is to score by putting balls in the goals, but we’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to get back to the paper again.”
The competition also promotes interaction between teams by pairing them for the competition.
“There are alliances. You’re in an alliance with another team of the same color, and you compete together and your points combine,” Bell said. “These guys could be going against each other, they could be going together, but eventually somehow they get weeded out into their own individual scores.”
When Saturday arrived, Bell turned out to be correct in his assumptions about alliances.
“There was one match where we had two of our teams in an alliance, and the third team was on the opposite side of the field,” Bell said.
The students had to deal with a variety of malfunctions during the competition, Bell said.
“We had various things. We blew a motor, we lost communication,” Bell said. “There was an intermittent drive problem that could be a program, wiring, or communication issue. You do your best to get through the match and figure out.”
Unlike most teams that used school mascots or club names to designate their teams, HHS students chose more colorful names.
Garrett Foster and Aaron Slater, who ranked 32nd after qualifying rounds, were Team Rambot. They named their robot Dorothy.
Team Chiefbot, Mueller and Erich Herbel, finished 22nd with their robot, K.C.
Dragonbot, the creation of Team Robozilla partners Loewen and Josh Siebert, made it to the quarterfinal round by placing third in qualifying.
“We didn’t do too bad for our first time,” Bell said. “We were up against some teams that had this as their sixth competition this year.”
Bell and HHS Principal Max Heinrichs both see attending the Ponca City event as an important first step to become a VEX competition site in the future.
“There really are no VEX competitions in Kansas,” Bell said.
“We would like to host one of these competitions next year,” Heinrichs said. “That’s our goal.”
“I’ve already volunteered to operate this event at our Kansas TSA state conference. I need to know how to run it,” Bell said. “The Ponca City event is operated by our regional representative. If we’re going to learn how to operate and host this, it’s nice to go to an event where our regional rep is hosting it.”