Robot battle
Feb 27, 2010 | 1310 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Students at Anniston and Oxford high schools are currently in a race to build robots that will compete against other robots in a worldwide robot competition called FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). Thanks to money and mentors provided by BAE Systems, the two schools are currently building soccer-playing robots that will compete in regional competition and, hopefully, on to the Championship competition in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

BAE Systems-Anniston has approximately 20 employees who are supporting the teams along with parents and teachers. Dennis Jenks, BAE Systems’ FIRST technical coordinator, and his team, The Apes of Wrath, from San Jose, Calif., have been instrumental in getting the teams started with students and other mentors staying in contact with the teams via e-mail.

The program is called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and, according to Bruce Barnett, engineer manager for BAE Systems in Calhoun County, “FIRST was designed to inspire kids to find ways to excel other than in sports or the traditional competitive avenues such as band, dance or cheerleading. Science, math and technology are the way of the future … how do we inspire that in our kids? This is one way.”

“A lot of students don’t have the skills to play traditional sports, so they are left out of the team competitive setting. These students sometimes get labeled as geeks; I know, I was one of them when I was in high school. FIRST was designed for those students. It lets them be in a competitive team environment without the atmosphere or social pressures of high school. They can be on the team and be themselves without being judged on how smart they are, what clothes they wear or who they hang out with.

“It also lets other aspects of the school get involved like the art department, which can design and develop decals for the robots and t-shirts for the students. The IT guys can build a team Web site. And I’m telling you, I went to the finals of the competition last year and it was like walking into the Final Four in basketball. There were cheering sections, cheerleaders and a great atmosphere.”

The students have six weeks to design and build a robot. Then it is boxed up and shipped to the regional competition site. The Anniston and Oxford teams will compete at the Peachtree Regional in Duluth, Ga., on March 5 and 6. It is open and free to the public.

The competition began on Jan. 9 at the FRC kickoff, when the 2010 game, “Breakaway,” was revealed. Two alliances of three teams each compete on a 27’ x 54’ field with bumps attempting to earn points by collecting soccer balls in their goals. Additional bonus points are earned for each robot not touching the field at the end of the match. Teams will also get points for displayed teamwork, helping other teams, mentoring, school spirit and knowledge about their robot systems.

The robot must be built and ready to ship by Feb. 23. Barnett says that both robots at Oxford and Anniston are on target. “This is just like an engineering project we work every day,” he said. “We have specific tasks that have to be done in a specific timeframe and within the monetary limitations of the rules. It is problem solving, prototyping and programming, and that’s what these students are very good at.”

Although the competition is fierce, it is not cutthroat. “There is a lot of graciousness and professionalism in the competition,” Barnett said. “If you’re having trouble, another team will jump in there and help out.” The goal is to win on and off the competition field.

There was a robot “scrimmage” on Feb. 20-21 in Georgia to help teams work the kinks out of their machines. “Teams will network, compete their robots and try to solve problems that other teams might be having,” Barnett said. There is a creed that everyone goes by, “No robot left behind.” The goal is to help all teams ensure their robot will compete.

This is the first year that FRC teams have been formed in Calhoun County, so both teams are considered rookies. BAE Systems has been one of the leading supporters for FIRST across the United States and when U.S. Combat Systems President Gary Slack, discovered that there were no teams in Calhoun County, Anniston and Oxford high schools were selected to receive $15,000 each to build robots. In addition, Oxford received a $6,000 grant from NASA.

“I love working with the students,” Barnett said. “There was nothing like this when I was in high school so it’s like a second childhood for me.”

Since this is the first year for Anniston and Oxford to field a team, they cannot advance to the world championship in Atlanta unless they win the regional competition in Duluth in March. Jenks, a 12-year FIRST veteran, who recently visited the teams build sites, believes both teams have a chance.

“This has been a learning process for everyone,” Barnett said. “I think we’ve stepped in just about every hole we could step in. But we’re going to have a good knowledge and understanding of what to do in the future. Plus, the kids will have a taste of the excitement and interest will grow.”

Pictured at left: Anniston High School team members who worked on programming the robot, left to right, included Joshua Green, Chris Conner, BAE Systems IT; Chien-Hua Chen, BAE Systems engineer; Quinterious Heard, Desirae Gasaway and Julius Wofford. Team members not pictured included Amesha Crawford, Jonathan Smith and Aaron Murphy.

Pictured at right: Oxford High School team members who worked on programming the robot, left to right, included Christian Blakeney, Katie Sherrill, Joel Esparza, Michael Roberts and Spencer Douglas.

— John Alred, The Jacksonville News
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