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Hempfield takes top honors at national robotics competition

| Monday, May 22, 2017, 7:33 a.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Senior Colin Philips, president of the robotics club, talks about their battle bot 'Eli', at Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Senior Colin Philips, president of the robotics club, talks about their battle bot 'Eli', at Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017. The team just became the 2017 national champions for the National Robotics League.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Senior Colin Philips, president of the robotics club, talks about their battle bot 'Eli' with other team members, at Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Senior Colin Philips, president of the robotics club, talks about their battle bot 'Eli' with other team members, at Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017. The team just became the 2017 national champions for the National Robotics League.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
'Eli' the battle bot built by Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
'Eli' the battle bot built by Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017. The team just became the 2017 national champions for the National Robotics League.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
'Eli' the battle bot built by Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
'Eli' the battle bot built by Hempfield Area High School in Hempfield Township, on Monday, May 22, 2017. The team just became the 2017 national champions for the National Robotics League.

Armed with a thick rectangle of titanium spinning at 17,500 RPM, Hempfield Area High School's ELI robot took on all comers and won a national robotics competition over the weekend at California University of Pennsylvania.

In the culmination of a year of late nights, last-minute tweaks and flying sparks, Hempfield won its first grand championship in the National Robotics League competition. They not only beat all the other robots in gladiator-style combat but also took first place for their thick binder of design documents and blueprints and an interviews with judges about the process.

"We went for the biggest, hardest-hitting weapon Hempfield's ever seen," said team member Joel Aston.

When it connected, the spinning weapon sent opponents flying as high as 15 feet in the air.

"A table saw is one pound going at 7,000 RPMs," said team president Colin Phillips. "This is 3 1⁄2 pounds going at 17,500 RPMs."

For three minutes at a time, remotely-operated robots from more than 60 teams competed one-on-one inside a protected arena. The winner either disabled the other robot or won on points from judges based on damage dealt.

Hempfield's ELI won the final round against Disko, the entry from Carnegie Mellon University's robotics club. A team from Pine-Richland won a separate category for best-engineered robot.

The Hempfield team started designing its robot at the beginning of the school year but made tweaks as recently as the weeks between winning the regional competition and the start of nationals on Friday, Phillips said.

Students would skip other classes and stay after school to work on the robot, making up their missed work later. Once, when the team's manufacturing partner, Washington Township-based Composidie Inc., suddenly moved a deadline for making parts, three weeks' worth of blueprint revisions had to be condensed into three days.

"I didn't go to class for three days and stayed here until 3 a.m.," Phillips said.

Other teachers were understanding of the work that the students put in, said advisor Craig Siniawski, noting how many teachers and staff came to the competitions to root for the team. One of his favorite parts of the process was sitting at lunch with an economics teacher, discussing the various trade-offs the team made in designing and building their robot, he said.

The team skipped armor around the outside that would protect their wheels but gave ELI bumpers with rounded corners so the robot would tip back onto its wheels if knocked onto its side. Its front axle was vulnerable to attack, but getting close to it put opponents in range of ELI's weapon.

Siniawski said the blueprints the team produced had to be professional-quality for Composidie to manufacture certain parts. Other pieces, like the battery pack, were made on the 3-D printer in Siniawski's classroom.

In all, the team took home $4,000 in prize money, plus another $2,500 and a giant Craftsman tool chest for competing in an optional battle that didn't count toward the tournament.

But the best reward was everything the participants learned about engineering, design and manufacturing, and all the contacts and experience they made within the manufacturing industry, said William Padnos, director of youth engagement for the National Robotics League and executive director of BotsIQ, the regional robotics competition that doubles as a workforce development program for the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Tooling & Machining Foundation.

"We try to connect the schools with local manufacturers, who help the schools with expertise and mentoring on career pathways," Padnos said. "Our goal is to engage the manufacturers of the next generation. ... I don't really care if they win a single round."

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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