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Students overcome obstacles with robots in challenge at Freeport Area High

| Wednesday, April 27, 2016, 12:28 p.m.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Freeport High School junior Tyler Lucas receives insight from teammate (center) junior Izzy Lindsay and (left) sophomore Abby Plocki as they guide their robot through the land obstacle course during Sea, Air and Land Challenge at Freeport Area High School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Freeport High School junior Kaylee Polena takes photographs of a robot as it treks through the land obstacle course during the Sea, Air and Land Challenge at Freeport Area High School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Springdale students Cameron Pribulsky, Tanner Michael, John Skowronski, and Mike Zolnierczyk check over their drone during the Sea, Air and Land Challenge at Freeport Area High School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Quaker Valley junior Zoe Willis dips her entire arm into the “sea” to fetch a propeller that fell off her team’s robot (seen at left) while junior Emily Truchan holds up her hair as they guide their robot through the sea obstacle course during Sea, Air and Land Challenge at Freeport Area High School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Quaker Valley students submerge their robot as they guide it through the sea obstacle course during the Sea, Air and Land Challenge at Freeport Area High School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.

High school students participating in the Sea, Air and Land Challenge on Tuesday contended with dead batteries, robot arms that would not cooperate and inadequate remote camera views.

After struggling last year, Freeport Area High's team came back with a remote-controlled robot with a longer arm capable of reaching higher, as well as a wider wheelbase and counterweights to keep it from tipping, which were problems.

Still, the challenge did not go as the four-member team had hoped. Members had problems keeping the remote camera signal connected to a small flat-screen TV, plus the camera location on the robot arm made it too difficult to see a wider view to navigate once an object was picked up.

For their second attempt in the afternoon, the team intended to move the camera to improve the angle.

“It's interesting to be able to design it and have to problem-solve,” said Tyler Lucas, 18, a Freeport Area senior.

“We're more comfortable than last year when we had no clue what we were doing,” added teammate Katie Zingaro, 16, a junior.

Teams of students worked throughout the school year to design and build a remote-controlled robot to be operated via camera. Their work culminated Tuesday when the students completed tasks in a sea, air or land scenario.

For the sea challenge, students designed a submersible robot to navigate in a 1,500-gallon water tank set up outside the school. In the land challenge, the students used their robot to pick up numbered blocks and place them in corresponding boxes. The air challenge required students to build a drone capable of dropping things and equipped with a camera to identify objects.

In each instance, the students completed the tasks by remotely viewing a camera feed from their robots sent to a tablet or a small flat-screen television.

Springdale High School's four-member team took first place in the air challenge. It was their school's first time participating in the event.

The four boys started with a basic drone and then used a 3-D printer to make plastic brackets they designed. They then attached a cylinder to drop paintballs onto targeted areas.

Two cameras allowed them to toggle between viewing the ground and straight ahead, which helped in navigation.

The students each contributed their talents to the project.

“It all meshed together,” said Cameron Pribulsky, 17, a junior. “I think we did really well together.”

The event was held at Freeport Area High in Buffalo Township. Teams from Freeport Area, Kiski Area, Springdale and Lenape Technical School were among the 12 school districts competing in the Southwestern Pennsylvania challenge.

In the four years since the event began, total participation has grown from 70 students to more than 450.

The Sea, Air and Land Challenge was developed by the Penn State Electro-Optics Center at Northpointe at Slate Lick business park and was funded by the Office of Naval Research and Alcoa.

One of the goals of the competition is to introduce students to careers in engineering, particularly in the Department of Defense.

While most of the robots operated smoothly, it was using the camera to navigate that gave many teams trouble, despite weeks of practice. Either the camera angle made it difficult to see well enough to grab a block, the signal feed failed or in one case, the camera came loose and was aimed directly at the ground.

“That's why we like to have the second runs,” said Nikki Green, a research engineer at Penn State's Electro-Optics Center, who served as a judge for the land challenge.

Green said she anticipated the students having problems, but that's what the competition is about.

“Hopefully, they can go back and correct those problems,” she said.

Lenape students did fairly well in the land challenge, after getting off to a rocky start because of a dead battery.

Paige Erskine, 17, said designing their robot was difficult at first, but once they decided on a specific design, their team worked well together at getting it to function properly.

“I like creating something off paper and putting it into an actual design,” said Noah Polka, 18, a Lenape student.

The technical school's 10th-grade team took top honors in the land challenge.

Jodi Weigand is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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