TOWER- The box it comes in really isn’t that big, but the pieces inside open up a whole new world to students who are eager to take on the challenge of robotics.
“The box comes with minimal instructions and lots of options,” said Vermilion Country School staff member Mike Joint, who was assisting a small group of students who were piecing together the struts, wheels, and axles that would make up the base of this year’s entry into the FIRST Robotics competition, in early March.
The team was participating in an overnight “lock-in” at the school, working on the robot Friday night and then during the day Saturday, taking advantage of the relatively short time teams are given to construct their unique robots.
After several weeks of planning, and strategic use of the team’s limited budget for extra supplies, team members were ready to start building.
This year’s robot will be a metal chassis with six-wheels (able to move about an obstacle-laden indoor arena), with a retractable arm built onto a wooden frame. The telescoping arm, built out of different-diameter PVC pipe with springs, pulleys, and motors on the inside, will reach up and allow the robot to “scale the castle tower” at the end of the challenge.
“This challenge involved a lot of out-of-the-box thinking,” said Joint. “The team spent a whole Saturday working out the design.”
Team members were back at school on another weekend, with some working on assembling the robot, and others starting to work on the computer programming, as well as the team flag and other design work.
Teacher/advisor Jennie Mounsdon oversees the team, with help from other school staff and parent/community volunteers.
VCS’s approach to the challenge is proudly low-budget.
“We get a lot of our supplies for free,” she said.
Students are currently selling discount cards for Papa Murphy’s make-and-bake pizzas as a fundraiser. The competition involves spending three nights in Duluth, with the team responsible for raising funds for the hotel and food costs. Entry fees for the competition are high, but the school has been successful in receiving grants to cover the costs of entry and the required robotics kit. This year as many as ten students and three staff will be attending the competition in Duluth.
“Some teams will spend over $10,000 extra on their robot,” said Joint. “Our team will spend less than $300, not counting the kit.”
Joint patiently worked with team members, about half of whom were new to FIRST Robotics, as they learned to use new tools and to solve the problems that cropped up along the way. Students were cutting out metal parts, threading metal pipes, and carefully measuring, and measuring again, as they assembled the chassis into the configuration they had designed.
“There is a lot of trial and error involved,” Joint said. “Things break and they need to figure out what to do.”
Joint sees his students learning important leadership skills, as well as teamwork and problem-solving.
“It is cool to watch as the kids make new connections,” he said.
The competition also gives students a chance to meet other like-minded high-school students from around the state.
“The teams all help each other out,” said Shaylin Peliska, who was also on the team last year.
“I am really excited about the challenge this year,” said Kat Schmidt, who is learning to program the software, which needs to be able to operate the robot on its own, and also under the control of a remote-control driver.
The team is working with some community volunteers for both the programming and more complicated skills, like welding.
They still plan to utilize low-tech building materials in their robot. Last year the team earned an award for the most unique construction materials, for their use of wood.
While they can reuse materials from the robots from the last two years, they said they hope to keep the other two robots mostly intact, so they can be used for “fun nights” and for training in other drivers. The team has assembled a large cabinet full of extra supplies, including motors, batteries, and assorted metal pieces and wiring, to be used for design work.
Daqari is hoping to repeat his experience last year, when he was the highest-scoring remote-control driver on the VCS team, which didn’t have much time to practice before the tournament, because of technical issues with their robot.
“Video games do come in handy,” Daqari said.