These South Florida Robots Shoot Balls, Climb Ropes And Foster Lifetime Love Of Science

Mar 2, 2017

There is a group of students from Miami Coral Park Senior High who are taking part in a major competition in West Palm Beach this week. It's not a baseball tournament or track and field event, but it has all the celebratory elements of a sporting event...cheerleaders, music and even the booming voice of the announcer. It's a robot competition.

The students are part of the after-school program RamTech 59 and they're participating in the annual FIRST competition in West Palm Beach. 

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It  is an annual series of robot competitions created by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to get students excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). 

It starts with regional competitions, which culminate in an international tournament that takes place in St Louis in April. Every year has a different theme that dictates the sort of events teams can expect and the sort of robots they will have to build. The theme for this year is SteamWorks. The following video is the official competition explainer: 

For the students of RamTech 59 , the journey started back in early January. At that time, every team received  the competitions rules, which dictate the size of the robots as well as the sorts of materials that are allowable. From there it was a race to come up with the design that will help win the competition. 

This i a print-out of the design for one piece of aluminum that will go on the largest of the three robots. Students will design the robot on 3-D software first, then get precise measurements for the creation of parts.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN

Here's what is required: Each team has to create robots that can perform three different tasks that will earn  points in team and head-to-head events.

The robots will have to find a way to launch or shoot wiffle balls at a nine-foot target.

They also have to pick up plate-sized gears and deliver them to a person standing on a platform above the playing court.

And then the robot that has to climb a rope. 

On the afternoon when I visit, Marcos Villa is working with a group of students on the largest part, the body, of the robot. They're working out the process of shooting wiffle balls into a target. Villa is a Miami Coral Park alum and currently an engineering student at Florida International University. He's helping the program as a mentor. "Sometimes we have our - we call them more heated discussions, because in reality we're all kind of passionate about this," said Villa. 

High school junior Brian Padron cracks a smile at the idea of heated discussions. "We start destroying designs to get to the best one, the design that will be most efficient. You have to really think outside the box, even if you're building an actual box," he said. 

This will be the third robot in the competition, the one that shoots wiffle balls at a target. These are the elastic arms that will pick up and move the wiffle balls into position to be launched.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN

Efficiency is key, according to RamTech 59 club mentor Charles Delahoz. "You only get two and a half minutes to play this game. You've got to score a lot of points in two and a half minutes. And a lot of time can be wasted if your robot's not efficient." 

RamTech 59 does not have a bottomless budget to buy supplies. The club has to find sponsors, then make use of the most basic materials to make things work.

High school junior Faraz Waheed, for example, worked out a way to build the robot's ability to climb a rope. Waheed says they solved the challenge by using the same method ships use to reel in anchors and velcro.

"What they [ships] have is called a winch. It's a type of mechanism that once you start reeling in your cord or whatever type of rope you're using, it's locking the actual system in place so you can reverse," said Waheed, who put velcro on the winch so that all he has to do is have the robot drive up to the rope, stick to it, then start turning. 

Students come in every day after school and even on weekends. The team is made up of 29 students of different grade levels, but the task of building three robots is still daunting. Add to that, each of the robots has to be autonomous for the first portion of the event. So, once they're built, they each must be programmed to maneuver on the playing field, do their tasks and not run into each other.

After dozens of drafts, mockup designs and trial and error, the robot was finished and sealed using a specially designed seals from the competition's organizers.

On Wednesday March 1, teams arrived at the convention center in West Palm Beach and began unloading their gear. Senior Edgar Uribe has been to a couple of these events, but he still describes the scene with a sense of awe: "Seeing the huge first robotics banner walking in and seeing this loud stadium, the field in play, all the robots being worked on in the pit. It's, it's incredible."

The top three teams will get the chance to compete in St Louis in April and take on teams from around the country and internationally. Win or lose, the intent of these events is to get students to fall in love with science and math. Uribe says it best: "It's hard work and fun mixed together. And that's STEM in my eyes."

The annual FIRST competition runs March 1-4 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. We wish good luck to all participants.