The room was silent as the robots started up and drove themselves across the arena, making their way to the goal. Robot number 6188 reached the goal — a bucket — drew its arm back and perfectly threw plastic figures into it. The silence was shattered with the cheers from Mount Si High School students.
Mount Si High School’s robotics team, known as the “Si-borgs,” started off the FIRST Tech Challenge tournament last Saturday with a win at the Mount Si High School Freshman Campus and ended up winning the majority of their matches that day.
Organized by Washington FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics, the First Tech Challenge is a program to promote technology and programming for middle and high school students. Teams build robots to compete in challenging, objective-based matches against other teams.
This year, two tournaments have been held at the Freshman Campus, hosting 15 teams each time, with the Mount Si, Chief Kanim, and Valley Robotics programs representing the Valley.
The Mount Si robotics team has worked hard to make it to this point. Kyle Warren, computer science and robotics teacher at the high school, said the team has been around for four years, but has only been competing for the last three.
“We had a year ahead of that where we formed a team, got all the pieces together, but didn’t compete because we weren’t ready. We wanted to ease into it,” Warren said. “Last month, we had our first match of the year and finished second in our league, which is terrific. We are certainly well suited to qualify to move on.”
Warren said they won’t receive their updated rankings until later this week, but the team ended up with three or four wins out of five matches this weekend.
Teams don’t enter the event pre-made, but are determined the morning of the tournament and swap throughout the day. Your opponent in your first match could become your partner in your third.
“You must build and program a robot to carry out a variety of tasks in this year’s game scenario that lasts two and-a-half minutes. The first 30 seconds of the match is completely autonomous, so the robots are pre-programed with whatever jobs they are supposed to do,” Warren said. “Once those 30 seconds are up and interim score is tallied, the referees will tell the teams they can pick up their game controllers and the remaining two minutes is all manually operated.”
After two-and-a-half minutes, the scores are tallied and the winner is declared.
The season kicks off when school starts. Microsoft hosts the unveiling event for the rules, field pieces and the complexity of the competition. From September to November, teams prepare for their first matches.
“Everything is built from square one, because we have to tailor it to the needs of that year’s particular contest. For instance, we didn’t have ramps or collection bins. Those are new elements we hadn’t planned on,” Warren said. “We also have a completely new electronic control system this year.
“We will spend a couple weeks just in a conceptual design stage. Then we spend the next two months building, testing, tearing it apart, rebuilding, and doing that over and over. Even through the matches, because we learn things and we see other teams’ strengths and weaknesses and try to be flexible in response to that.”
Now the group is performing quite well in events and working as a team to design and refine their robot.
“There are 15 students here at the high school, all various ages and we will take students with all different skill levels, experience, and interest,” Warren said. “There are some students we have had in the past who are very mechanically oriented. They are the ones who are primarily responsible for building and doing repairs.
“We’ve got students who are really incredible programmers, so software is their thing. We’ve got students who do computer-aided design, creating a 3-D model of custom pieces we need to have fabricated or just the entire assembled robot. Then we have managers and people who do public relations and fundraising.”
Their robot is designed as a multiphase project, meaning they are always looking at additional components to add as they go. One of the things the students have been working on is a telescopic pole that will help to push levers on the zip lines and press buttons on the beacon that draws robots to the collection bin, which are worth additional points.
In terms of price these components can add up pretty quickly, reaching over $1,000 in some cases.
“Field pieces are around $600, the robot itself can range from about $600 to $1,000 depending on how much gear you have. Luckily software is free, so that’s a good thing,” Warren said.
“This year was the first year we felt we needed a color sensor which was a new part they had to learn about and figure out how to incorporate into our design. Every year there are new purchases and new registration fees and so on.”
Warren said the team would like to find sponsors.
“The team is always looking for local individual and business partners to sponsor them so they can afford the materials, registration cost, and sometimes the travel fees and to make sure they have as rich an experience as possible.”
Beau Johnson, Thomas Hedrick, and Rahul Rajkumar make adjustments to their robot during tournament preparation.
Vishnu Rathnam and Thomas Hedrick watch as Rahul Rajkumar controls the robot during Mount Si’s first win of the day. Brad Canady, one of the team mentors and referees, officiates the match.