Local robotics clubs gain experience through FIRST competition
Two local teams have returned from the annual FIRST Robotics Competition held last weekend, and though neither team ranked very high, they came away charged with experience.
Both United High School's team and the Westmoreland County 4-H Gears Club competed at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics regional event March 27-29 at California University of Pennsylvania.
Adviser Michael Lee noted the United Robotics Club has come a long way — with 19 members this year, up from four members when it was launched eight years ago.
The United club has participated in three different robotics competitions over the years — Bot Ball, Bots IQ and now the FRC. The team typically competes in only one event per year and has been participating in the FRC for the past three years.
The club has done well in the past at FRC, making the qualifying round last year. The club won the Bot Ball once in its early years of competition.
But the United team didn't fare as well this year, placing last after having some technical difficulty with its robot.
The 4-H Gears may not have scored high, but they did overcome obstacles to achieve two goals with their robot project this year.
It was a year of firsts for the 4-H Gears. This was the first year the club worked out the kinks in “autonomous” mode, successfully pre-programming its robot to move on its own, and it was the first year the 4-H team used omniwheels, allowing the robot to move left and right as well as forward and backward.
“So that was a plus for us,” said Vince Ugoletti. a mentor for the 4-H Gears whose son, Dominic, 15, is a member of the team.
“We had some issues with different parts of the robot breaking during the competition and we had to work to replace them. But, overall we did well,” said 4-H Gears member Sam McGaughran, a senior homeschooled student from Blairsville who has been a member of the club for three years.
The challenge at this year's FRC was called “Aerial Assist” and had the competing robots picking up, passing and throwing a large exercise ball at a target.
The three-day FRC event had the student teams using Thursday as a practice round, fine-tuning their robots and making last-minute adjustments.
Qualifying rounds began on Friday. Each competing team made one robot and was chosen at random to be on one of two sides — the red or blue alliance — in the qualifying rounds, creating a bracket scoring system.
Each team played eight qualifying matches. Teams were scored on various tasks, then ranked based on how well they did.
Each match had three teams partnering to complete the tasks. Each robot had a turn picking up a ball, passing the ball to the other robots on the team, and launching the ball at a slot target.
The top eight qualifying teams got their pick of other teams to partner with in Saturday's double-elimination tournament rounds.
“It's kind of hard the way they score it,” Ugoletti said. “Even though you're ranked a certain way, your score depends on the alliance — the other robots that are on your team. If they perform well, you score more points and move up in the rankings.
“Robots you played one game with will change, so you're on a team with all of the robots at some point.”
In January, teams learned the tasks they would be asked to perform and had six weeks to build their robots.
“The kids' idea was to build a catapult that used rubber wheels to pick up the ball,” Lee said of the United team. “It worked, but they had difficulty getting the ball to stay on the arm long enough to throw it.”
Lee noted that the team this year was comprised of sophomores and freshmen, many of whom had no experience on the competitive robotics field.
“So we were a rookie team,” he said. “It was a learning experience.”
The 4-H Gears used a forklift-style system to pick up the ball. The forklift then tilted back, allowing the ball to be rolled onto the robot's throwing arm. The Gears' robot could throw the ball an estimated distance of 10 to 12 feet and 8 feet in the air.
At one point, Vince Ugoletti said, the team was ranked eighth, but its points slid from there, and it ended up ranked 42nd out of the 48 competing teams.
But he noted that the team performed exceptionally well in autonomous mode — the first 15-20 seconds of each match when a robot operated without students' intervention, preprogrammed to move and launch the ball in an attempt to score.
“Ours was able to do that numerous times during the matches,” he said.
The remaining portion of each match had the robots controlled by the students through a drive station.
The United Robotics Club typically meets Friday nights during competition season, which runs December through February. The club, which was sponsored by the school district this year, hosted a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Armagh-East Wheatfield Fire Hall to help raise money for the FRC entrance fee and to help cover the cost of the materials to build its robot. The club also received a donation from M&C Trucking.
The entrance fee for the regional FRC event is $5,000, and teams are allowed to spend a maximum of $4,000 on parts for their robots.
The Westmoreland 4-H team has nine students ages 14-18 working with up to 10 volunteer mentors. This is the club's third year of operation, and it has competed in the FRC all three years.
The 4-H Gears achieved success in the past at the FRC, winning the Judge's Choice Award last year because it was the only team that entered the regional competition whose robot was able to successfully climb a tower to its peak. The team made it into the first round of the semifinals last year before being eliminated.
The 4-H Gears meet Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, usually scaling back the meetings during the summer months before picking back up in the fall, when planning begins for the next competition.
The 4-H Gears didn't do much in the way of fundraising events this year.
“We were very fortunate,” Ugoletti said. “We had some team members that stepped up and made large financial contributions to the team to keep us going this year.”
One of the biggest benefits of the FRC, Ugoletti noted, is that participating students can apply for college scholarship money through the competition.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.