By Brian Cohen
Hollywood could not have written a do-or-die script with a better twist. Our teenage heroes had run out of time, chances and pizza.
The Loose Screws Robotics Team from Western Albemarle High School faced elimination Jan. 25 from a third visit to the state championship in Richmond, much less the regional and national tournaments. Although Loosey, the Screws’ robot, had performed brilliantly through most of the rounds in the First Tech Challenge (FTC) Qualifier in Norfolk, it could not overcome the combination of a few untimely malfunctions and frequent alliances with low-scoring ’bots. The bottom line: The Loose Screws’ win-loss record kept them out of the finals.
However, during judging sessions and interviews, officials noted Loosey’s unique and advanced features. In those sessions, each team gave a short presentation with a brief question-and-answer period to highlight the robot’s design elements (and process of design), community outreach efforts, and the team as a whole. The Screws impressed the judges, garnering nominations for six awards. One of them was the competition’s most prestigious Inspire Award, which grants the winner and two runners-up the opportunity to advance to the state level. In the waning moments of the tournament when the awards were announced—the Inspire was the last one presented—the Screws heard their team announced as the first runner-up.
The Inspire Award is given to teams deemed role models for others, displaying “gracious professionalism” (aka sportsmanship) in addition to designing an innovative and well-performing robot, maintaining a detailed engineering notebook, and participating in outreach activities to promote robotics. In addition, the Screws won the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award, presented for thinking “outside the box” in designing their robot.
In a typical FTC robotics tournament, competition occurs as teams are paired in randomly selected, temporary—red vs. blue—“alliances” for multiple rounds, each lasting two minutes and 30 seconds in a field 12 by 12 feet, enclosed with foot-high walls. Alliances use their robots to generate points by accomplishing tasks, which differ from year to year. In the first 30 seconds, the robots operate without human drivers, directed solely by a computer program created by the team. Drivers control their robots for the remaining two minutes, manipulating them, this year, to gather plastic cubes and place them into bins, raise flags and do pull-ups on a bar. Each team in the victorious alliance is credited with a win. The top four winning teams advance to the finals of the qualifier, choose new alliances and compete in a best-of-three-round battle. Then judges proclaim two champions qualified to enter the Virginia championship competition on March 1. In addition, winners of certain awards, such as the Inspire, are also invited to move on to the next level.
Andy Cohen, student leader of the Loose Screws and president of the WAHS Robotics Club, said he and his teammates were not discouraged throughout the competition, since they had been told by inspection judges—the ones that hand out the awards—that Loosey was among the most sophisticated and innovative in the tournament, designed with a 3-D CAD program. Among Loosey’s unique features is a rotating brush scoop, flexible and tactile enough to gather several plastic blocks at one time quickly, even if they are pressed against a wall. Another innovation is the “ploop,” a mechanism that extends and retracts the scoop for additional reach in the field, yet keeps Loosey in compliance with rules limiting the dimensions of dormant robots. Judges were also impressed with the one-of-a-kind hanging and arm mechanisms.
The Loose Screws will not be heading to Richmond alone. Western’s other team, the Geek Gods, won two qualifying tournaments with their robot, Nemesis, and will be attending the state competition also. At the Shenandoah qualifier meet in early January, Nemesis thrilled the crowd and judges alike when it performed a “double hang” on the pull-up bar with its alliance partner’s robot. Aided by a flexible drive train, the speedy ’bot maneuvered easily around the field. The Gods also won the Inspire Award and took home the Design Award for best CAD design. Since the WAHS Robotics Club was established in 2011, both teams have competed at the state level.
But the club is about more than robot wars. WAHS Robotics Coordinator Caroline Bertrand said the club, 18 students strong, has been busy in outreach, training students at three local high schools, supporting a middle school club, teaching elementary students basic programming and persuading a Charlottesville Boys and Girls Club chapter to introduce 150 children to robotics.
According to Bertrand, the club operates on a $5,000 budget. Half of the support comes from students’ families, half from sponsors. However, more is needed to meet expenses this year, Bertrand said. To support both teams, contact Caroline Bertrand at [email protected]. To follow the exploits of the Loose Screws and Geek Gods, go to Wahsrobotics.com.