Robotics team gets well versed in problem-solving

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jasper High School junior Emily Haas, center, works on assembling the base of a robot with freshman Logan Albrecht, left, and junior Travis Lechner during a robotics club meeting at the school on Tuesday. The Thundercats meet up to 12 hours a week outside of school over several months to program, design, test and assemble a robot to complete tasks during a robotics competition. Emily said she enjoys getting to see the robot's progress as the team builds together.


JASPER — Jasper High School junior Edwin Sanchez typed a series of code into his computer, loaded it onto a robot and set it in motion. The robot sped ahead and slammed into the wall of Fred Routson’s classroom.

Back to the drawing board for Edwin. Does he know where the mistake in the code is?

“Not yet, but I’ll find out,” he said.

The scene is a perfect example of the problem-solving and trial and error involved in robotics, and working through such situations is a hallmark of the FIRST Robotics competition.

Jasper High School’s robotics team — the Thundercats — began participating in FIRST Robotics competitions in 2011. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and involves teams of high school students from around the world competing in games with autonomous and remote control robots they design, program and build themselves under the guidance of mentors in science and technology fields. It’s a massive undertaking that has students working in Routson’s classroom for 12 hours a week from the beginning of January through March.

“That robot from last year,” Routson said, pointing at the machine that ran into the wall, “We’ve probably got about 2,500 man hours in that.”

Jasper High School junior Travis Lechner shows sophomore A.J. Arteaga, left, how to steer the robot using a controller during a robotics club meeting at the school on Tuesday.

To get all the work done, the team splits into subgroups. One group, headed by Edwin, is in charge of programming the robot. They use the previous year’s robot to test out the new code while other teammates design and build the new robot.

The design team uses computer-aided design programs to design original parts for the new robot. Monday evening, sophomore Dawson Neff sat in front of the computer learning the software. It’s his first year on the team, but he gained some experience with CAD in one of Routson’s engineering classes his freshman year. Still, there’s a learning curve as the program the FIRST team uses is different from the one Dawson learned in class.

“Right now, I’m working on aligning the holes for the rivets,” Dawson said.

He guided the cursor along a drawing of a support beam for the robot’s frame. A couple clicks later, a set of holes appeared on the drawing, and Dawson checked the specifications to make sure they lined up properly.

Meanwhile, in the shop, juniors Hannah Rasche and Emily Haas led the build team through a kit the team got so they could have a model of this year’s robot to practice with while they design and personalize the competition robot.

“Time restraints and money are our biggest challenges,” Emily said. “We spend a lot of time designing, and then we realize, ‘Oh, the competition is in a month.’”

Money is a challenge because a full season costs about $15,000 — $5,000 to register a team, another $5,000 max for building the robot and $4,000 if the team makes it state. Then, there are travel expenses, as well. The cost means that fundraising is another big part of being on the FIRST Robotics team, and several local companies donate money or shop time annually. There is also a group of students designated as the business team that does additional fundraising.

Hannah and Emily have both been on the team since freshman year and agree that while being on the team is a big time commitment, it’s worth it.

“I love the team bonding,” Hannah said. “We get along really well, and if we all do our part, it’s not that hard.”

This year, the challenge is Star Wars themed. The teams will build “droids” that will have to collect power cells — foam balls — and deposit them in targets to charge planetary shields in the middle of a meteor shower. For the first 15 seconds of the competition, the robot must be autonomous. Then, a driver will take over and control the machine through a remote control. During competition, individual teams are grouped in alliances of three and compete against other alliances. The arrangement is part of FIRST’s emphasis on gracious professionalism — yes, the teams are competing against each other, but cut-throat competition is not the goal of FIRST. Rather, teams are taught to cooperate with and learn from each other.

By the end of the season, members of FIRST Robotics teams have gotten a deep dive into what it takes to work in the robotics field, and they’ve gotten a taste of several technologies that can set them on the path to a career in science and technology.

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