Minges hosts high school robotics competition

As of the first week of January, dozens of high school students knew they’d be working together to build robots to compete in a global competition, but they didn’t know exactly what their robots would have to do. Just six weeks later on Feb. 20, their machines had to be complete.

In those scant weeks, they learned the parameters of the competition, designed robots to perform the tasks, tested prototypes of the various mechanisms the robots would need, then built final versions that will compete in several rounds of competition beginning at the district level, which will be held at East Carolina University’s Minges Coliseum on March 10-11. Thousands of teams around the world have been doing the same.

“The big kicker in this competition is they only give you six weeks to do it,” said Pitt Pirates Robotics engineering captain Todd Stancil. “So the first week in January they gave us the game. Tomorrow night (Feb. 20) at midnight we have to put our robot in a bag. And we’re not allowed to touch it other than six hours the week before the competition.”

This year’s FIRST Robotics Competition, dubbed Power Up, has a video game theme and centers on 1-foot yellow boxes called power cubes. Within a 54-by-27-foot field of competition, the robots will move the power cubes onto platforms as much as 6 feet in the air, as well as into small receptacles.

“They’re trying to load up their side of a scale,” said Pitt Pirates Robotics team mentor Bill McClung. “Tipping the scale starts a counter that scores points for your side.”

Mentor Kevin Daniels makes an adjustment on the Franken-Bones robot.

The robots, which weigh about 150 pounds, must be able to operate both by radio control and autonomously for different portions of the competition. At the end of the round, they must also be able to lift themselves up on a “chin-up” bar.

Two teams, Pitt Pirates Robotics and Boneyard Robotics, unveiled their robots – named Riptide and Franken-Bones, respectively – on Feb. 19 at C.M. Eppes Middle School. Pitt Pirates Robotics has been competing for 11 years, while this is the fourth year for Boneyard Robotics. Both have have had success, McClung said. Pitt Pirates won the Pitt County District Tournament last year and qualified for the World Championships. Boneyard Robotics won the spirit award and also qualified for the championships, where McClung said both teams did well in their divisions and played up into the finals.

While the two teams will compete against each other, they have been working together and collaborating during the build process. Stancil said that spirit of “coopetition” is an important part of the sportsmanship aspect of the program.

“We call it gracious professionalism; it’s helping your competition,” he said. “There are pictures of me from last year … out there with a robot that was about to compete against me, and I’m helping them fix their robot.”

It’s also a tremendous learning opportunity, McClung said. Students learn about the design and engineering process, as well as different types of mechanisms that can be used to accomplish the desired tasks.

For the gripping mechanism of this year’s robot, Stancil said the team tried several different versions.

Students operate the robots during the unveiling. The robots have both an autonomous mode and a radio controlled mode for different portions of the competition.

“We went through pneumatics,” he said, “with a piston running back and forth, and we decided that springs were more cost and weight effective. We do have a weight limit, and that’s always a big issue.”

Each component is developed separately, with certain members of the team coordinating to ensure the various components will be able to function together.

“Our mentors say we do it very similar to how it would be done in the professional engineering world,” said Stancil.

The students also get the opportunity to work with design software that would normally cost thousands of dollars.

McClung, himself a student at ECU working on a master’s degree in technology management, said he’s excited that the competition is being held at the university this year.

“It’s a great chance to be at ECU and to showcase all the things that ECU has going on,” he said. “These are the kind of kids that ECU wants to get in here. They’re technologically minded and motivated.”

The students on the team have a wide range of knowledge, and each has a role that contributes to the overall mission. Some focus on design, engineering or building, while others may focus on other aspects such as fundraising.

After the March 10-11 competition at Minges, the teams will compete in a second district competition at UNC Pembroke. The statewide competition will be held April 7-8 at Campbell University, and this year’s world competition is in Houston, Texas on April 17-22.

For more information visit www.pittpiratesrobotics.com or boneyardrobotics.com.