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03/01/2010 - Lewis and Clark Robotics Faces FIRST Showdown

Lewis and Clark (LC) High School students in the Robotics Club will compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) 2010 robotics tournament in Seattle's Key Arena on March 26. The competition will be the culmination of six frenzied weeks of robot design, construction, and programming. More than a dozen LC students, along with faculty advisor Nate Edmons and a few industry mentors, have spent hundreds of after school hours in the robotics lab perfecting their LC robot.

This is the nineteenth FIRST robotics competition, and each competition features a game. It is a very interesting game and the rules are far from simple. The game changes every year, so that last year's robot won't work. The students have to start from scratch.

To start the competition, on January 9 the FIRST organization revealed the game -- by live NASA feeds -- to over 50,000 high school students worldwide. From that date, the students had exactly 6 weeks to design, construct, program, and test a single robot to fit a specific aspect of the game. At the end of six weeks, the LC robot was packed and shipped to the headquarters site of the robotics tournament.

This year's game, called "Breakaway", is a little like soccer being played by robots. The "Breakaway" playing field is 27 by 54 feet with goals at each end. The field is divided into 3 sections of equal size 'a section in front of each goal, and a center section. The sections are divided by "bumps" 'the robotic equivalent of speed bumps. Each game lasts about 2 minutes. To play the game, two "alliances" of three teams compete. A team consists of 3 students and a robot; an alliance is 9 people and 3 robots. This requires each team to act cooperatively with two other teams for any game.

The game starts with eighteen soccer balls in play. Each team attempts to earn points by placing soccer balls in goals, while blocking the other team from making goals. Each goal is worth 1 point. To add complications, 2 points can be earned if the robot attaches itself to a tower and hoists itself off of the field at the end of the game. Three points are earned if a robot successfully attaches itself to another hanging robot 'one that has just hoisted itself off the field 'and then hoists itself up onto the hanging robot. It is complicated. View the Breakaway game description and animation.

To get them started, each team receives a kit of parts made up of motors, batteries, an embedded control system, a PC, and a mix of automation components 'but no instructions. In addition to the kit of parts, teams may spend up to $3500 for additional materials. All robots must conform to limitations of height and weight 'weighing no more than 120 pounds. According to Keaghan Caldwell, LC senior, a robot might specialize in offense or defense, to play at the goal end or in mid-court, and each team gets to choose the specialty for their robot. LC chose to create a center-of-the-court robot. The robot has ball kickers, bumpers for blocking, a shield to keep soccer balls from getting hung up, and a hook and winch to hang the robot from the tower. The robot is driven using joy-sticks for part of each game. One element that sets the LC robot apart is the use of a light weight, yet very strong, base materia l donated by the Triumph Corp, according to Caldwell.
Erica Hewie, a senior and team captain, is the only person on the current team who also participated on last year's team. According to Hewie, there will be about sixty teams from Washington and North Idaho participating in the regional competition. From LC the team includes four freshman, three juniors, five seniors, and four team members are women.

The programming team is a "team within the team" and its two members are one senior and one freshman. The programmers use the LabView visual programming environment, and a special development computer. At the beginning of the game, each robot must perform an activity autonomously for 15 seconds. It is the programmers who make this happen. The project gives them experience in integration of hardware and software.

The LC robotics club thanks their sponsors: Triumph Group, Inc., Autodesk, LabView, NASA, Gonzaga University, Ciena, Process Engineers, Bezos Family Foundation, and IEEE. They plan to repeat their efforts in the next game for 2011, and issue an invitation for community mentors. People knowledgeable about science, technology, or engineering are especially needed. Anyone interested in being a mentor should contact Karen Shields, LC Robotics Club parent, at mailto:karenashields@gmail.com.

Billie Moreland
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