Party With The Robots

Photo by Mary O’KEEFE Robots meeting robots at a scrimmage last Friday with Robotic teams from Crescenta Valley, Clark Magnet and La Cañada high schools.


After six weeks of mind numbing equations, programming nightmares, mechanical arms and a mini robot three local high schools waved goodbye to their robotic creations until they meet again at their chosen regional competitions.

Clark Magnet, Crescenta Valley and La Cañada high schools’ robotic/engineering teams have all been working on their robots preparing them for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competitions. They will all meet again at the Long Beach Arena.

FIRST is a competition that challenges engineering teams across the country, as well as other nations, to a specific game. Each year the game changes; last year it was a game of robot soccer where balls had to be kicked into a goal area. The year before it was more like robot basketball. This year it is a game akin to Tic-Tac-Toe called Logo Motion.  Two competing alliances (each alliance consists of three robots or high school teams) face each other on a flat 27-foot by 54-foot field. Each alliance competes to hang as many inflated plastic shapes – triangles, circles and squares – as they can on a grid within the match time of 2 minutes and 25 seconds. The higher they hang the objects the higher the points – which leads to the teams’ headaches over the mechanical arm.

Not only does it have to grasp the inflatable objects firmly enough to transport it to the grid, the arm must be steady enough to place it onto the pin on the grid.

Each year the competition also includes extra points if the robot can pull itself up off the ground by grabbing a pole and, in a way, chinning itself. This year however there is a switch – a mini-bot.

The mini-bot, which is attached to the playing robot, must move onto a base and shimmy 25 feet up a pole.

The teams have six weeks from when they get the extremely detailed instructions to placing it into a crate to send off to regional competitions.

Until three years ago the three local high schools that compete in FIRST only say each other at the Los Angeles Regional. CVHS Robotic’s team teacher/mentor Greg Neat came up with the idea of getting the teams together to meet, have a burger and compete.

This year it was Clark’s turn to have everyone over for a little scrimmage. The night took on the personality of one of the team’s leaders senior Laura Widholm. The event became more of a celebration then a competition. There was dancing, the inflatable shapes were flying through the sky and everyone seemed to be laughing.

But ask any of the team members about their robot and they immediately go into explanation mode. Widholm walked over to the detailed poster that explained Reptar, Clark’s robot entry.

“We tried a bunch of different types of [arms] to see how they worked,” Widholm said.

They came up with a type of telephoto arm. Widholm said that when the team first heard of the rules it was the mini bot they thought would be the challenge.

“But our real challenge was the accelerated schedule we had [laid out],” she said.

The team had learned from the past that the more time they had to program and drive the robot the better they would do in the competition. The schedule was difficult but Widholm said gave them added time at the end to work out problems.

In the past Clark had attended two regionals, one in San Diego and one the L.A. Regional held in Long Beach. This year however they were only able to go to Long Beach.

“It’s all comes down to fundraising,” Widholm said.

CVHS team members know about the trials and tribulations of fundraising. This was the first year the team had gone out into the community to fundraise. The result; they raised enough money and for the first time will go to two competitions. They will head for San Diego on March 9 and still compete in the LA regional in Long Beach on March 24 to 26.

CVHS team Falkons had their engineering challenges as well. The robot could not make it to the scrimmage because of programming problems.

Nick Ferraro, who is the student in charge of the wheel mechanisms, said that at first the arm seemed to be the challenge, then it was the mini-bot but at the end it was the programming.

“The arm should be fine, now we are working on the motor,” Ferraro said the day before the bot was shipped out.

He added there was no reason to panic because they could always work on the coding/programming after the robot shipped. They have a twin robot that they can practice with.

La Cañada will be heading to Long Beach and then onto to Las Vegas for competition.

Each team has mentors, many from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Andrew T. Bingham is a mentor for La Cañada.

When Bingham was a student in Vermont he had competed in the Design Task [robotic] competition.

“That sparked me to become a mechanical engineer,” he said.

Bingham now works as the instrument mechanical engineer on JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory.

That type of inspiration is what he wants to help pass on to students and LCHS. A friend of his at JPL had been mentoring the team. The friend went to MIT and he stepped in to help.

Toward the end of the evening Widholm asked the mentors to come up to the front of the stage and had every give them a round of applause. And then she told the Clark team DJ to start the song. The mentors, JPL scientists and engineers, teachers and highly educated men and women did the Chicken Dance to the delight of their highly educated students.

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