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Robotics Wins Rookie Award


This past weekend, the BT robotics team traveled to New Orleans to take part in the Bayou Regional Competition. The 19 students, the club’s three moderators, Brent Hollers, Amy Muller and Bob Amar and a few parents attended three days of practice, testing and a final round. The club, in its inaugural year, amazingly won the “Rookie All-star Award” and are now heading to the national competition at the end of April in St. Louis.

BT started a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team in the spring of 2012 with a handful of student volunteers. According to moderator and computer teacher, Brent Hollers, the primary reason the school started a robotics team was the number of parents who had expressed interest in having a team especially on Open House. “It seems we always got a number of questions regarding a robotics team and if we planned on having one. Additionally it has always been an interest of mine to start a robotics team. We initially began with a robotics class and moved on from there,” explained Hollers. The students in Hollers' Introductory Robotics Class also requested a robotics team; some had participated in robotics teams previously. These students were using Lego robots with NXT systems, similar to what middle school robotics teams use in their respective FIRST challenges.

Kell Robotics graciously agreed to mentor BT’s team through the summer and show them the component parts, control systems, electrical systems, and code bases of some of their previous FRC robots from the 2011 and 2012 competitions. “We learned how to wire the robot's signal and power boards and control the pneumatic and drive systems,” said Bob Amar. “They also explained the larger structure of the competition and FIRST as an organization.” Accompanying the three team mentors to these summer sessions were five students Michael Muller, Ryan Kuhn, Josef Luague, Dallas Downing, and Andre Montenegro.

According to Mrs. Muller, in the fall of 2012 the team had some small team activities. “We borrowed a robot from Kell to show off at Club Day and Open House; in the process we exposed a lot of students to driving and maintaining a robot. We also observed and worked with veteran Georgia teams, such as those from Kell and Roswell, at GRITS, a large FIRST-affiliated off-season robotics tournament at Robins Air Force Base,” she said.

In January 2013, the team embarked upon their build journey as part of the 2013 FRC challenge, "Ultimate Ascent." The build period lasted for 45 days, ending in late February, and they were then slated to compete in two regional competitions in March, one in Gwinnett and one in New Orleans. In "Ultimate Ascent," the robots on a team work together to shoot Frisbees into ten-foot-high goals and climb jungle gym-style pyramids for extra points, all in the space of a frenetic two-minute match. There is even an "autonomous period" in the match where the robots must act on their own without human operators.

“Clearly, this was a tall order; I believe at the beginning the students were quite surprised with the intricacy of the wiring and the mechanics of the drive train assembly,” stated Amar. “The successful robots we observed have a way of ‘hiding’ the sheer amount of detail and precision required to produce them. Indeed, some of the biggest challenges involved what seemed like the smallest of problems.” Amar went on to explain, for example, that running wire into a particular plastic plug into the robot's circuit board sounds like a simple task, and it is - once you have done the 45 minutes of research required to find the appropriate replacement for the tool you did not even know was needed that fits specifically into the plug, let alone how to use it. 

“Also, you will accidentally program the robot to drive backwards unless you know how many gears are in the drive train on each side and how the motors are wired,” said Amar. “Suffice it to say we learned as much about what NOT to do as we did what to do, but such learning is natural and will only benefit us as a team.”

Slowly but surely, Frisbee shooters were prototyped and the robot became known as "Spanky" (from the sound it makes as a motorized arm smacks a Frisbee into the shooter) came into being. The students gained valuable knowledge in prototyping and building, from cutting large pieces of metal and wood to form the robot and its frame to grinding down small collars to cover the drive shaft of a motor. They even put together a second robot for practice and further testing (and yes, it came together much faster than the first one did).

“While our team did not get a pyramid-climbing function on the robot in time for the regional competitions,” said Hollers, “we did well enough to win the Rookie All-Star award at the Bayou Regional in New Orleans, awarded to the best overall first-year FRC team in terms of technical achievement, service, and future potential. As a result, we get to go to the National competition in St. Louis in April. This was an exciting moment for our team as we saw the hours of hard work pay off in our ability to be recognized and to get a shot at a national championship.” The goals now are to get climbing working, to improve the function and appearance of the robot, and to win Rookie All-Star at Nationals.

According to the team, they have learned a lot of technical skills this year, from computer-aided design to the proper and efficient use of tools. They have also learned that so much of the competition is not about your robot, but the people on your team and how effectively they work together with each other, with other teams, and with the community at large. One of the principal values of FIRST is "Gracious Professionalism," a term which implies not only technical excellence but character excellence, a willingness to help others achieve greatness rather than withhold it for yourself. 

“As a Catholic school,” noted Muller, “we already inculcate a lot of these virtues into our students; hopefully, we can continue to grow and be successful as an FRC team.”