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Robotics Club aims for top

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Education > Putting a robot together is a time-consuming process

By Tris DeRoma

This year, the Robotics Club at Los Alamos High is determined to get past the semifinals and win big at this year’s “FIRST” Robotics Competition.
According to David Phillips, a contractor who is also the lead mentor for the group, they’ve come close in the past two years, but there was always something to trip them up in the end.
“In every tournament we’ve been in, we’ve made it to the semifinals of the elimination round,” Phillips said. “...We’d really like to get that final match.”
According to Phillips, they’ve learned much from being in the competitions, and they are applying the lessons they’ve learned to this year’s competition. He said now they are constantly testing the individual components of the robot, rather than waiting to test the whole machine at once. The idea is to get each individual part working correctly so when it does all finally come together, there’ll be less bugs in the system.
“We’ve already built a drive chassis, we’ve wired it up, making it work and we’re actually using that to get all the driving code done in advance so we can get the driver’s practice done in advance,” Phillips said. They have another test bed where they’re checking the computational electronics, and another one for pneumatics.
“In previous years, we’ve built from the ground up until we got to the end where the last thing we do is build the software,” he said. “This year is different.”
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), is holding the competition March 6-8 in Lubbock Texas. The second one will be in Denver in early April 3-5.
Don Davis, the student’s teacher, said the two competitions are actually two separate regional competitions. He said attending both will allow them to improve their score. If they make it, they will be able to go on to the national competition in St. Louis.
FIRST was started in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen as a way to get young people interested in science and technology through building their own robots and entering them in competition. One of the more powerful features of the program is its “real world” aspect. Not only do the student’s robots have to work and perform real tasks when they’re supposed to, they have to do it in the heat of competition. Another aspect of FIRST is it also creates collaboration between students interested in pursuing careers in science, engineering and technology and adults already working in those fields, like Phillips and Davis, as well as employees from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. There are 31 students and 18 adult mentors in the Robotics Club.
Student Cameron Tauxe, who is also the club’s publicist, participated in the last two competitions, and is looking forward to this year’s competition.
As someone who will be graduating soon, he said the team’s mentors have taught him well about what it’s like working on a team of professionals toward a common goal.
“Probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned about being on the team is how to work as part of a group,” he said.
This year’s competition is called “Aerial Assist,’ where the students have to build a robot that’s capable of holding a large rubber ball, about the size of an exercise ball. It also must be able to maneuver the ball down a “field” as well as pass and catch the ball to and from other robots. The object is to score as many goals as possible within two minutes and 30 seconds. Huge points are given to robots that “assist” each other as they get the ball down the field. For more information, go to usfirst.org for details on the game.
With the first competition just three weeks away, the students as well as their mentors are working very hard to see the project through. According to Davis, who is also the chair of UNM-LA’s Applied Technology Department as well as an assistant professor, they are about halfway done, and they should have the robot put together in about a week.
“We hope to get some time so the drivers can practice driving it and the programmers can practice programming it,” he said.
The robot is being built at the technology building on the UNM-LA campus. Though the competition is just three weeks away, Tauxe said he’s confident they’ll be ready, and perhaps do even better than they’ve done in the past two years.
“This year might be the year we get to the national competition,” he said. “Every year we improve, and every year there are lessons learned.”
Club members will be competing as Team 4153 in the competition. To follow their progress, go to team4153.com/wordpress.