Robo Mustangs head to world championship

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Mar. 4, 2013
Team members work on the Horse Power robot. Photos by D. Coffey.
Team members work on the Horse Power robot. Photos by D. Coffey.

The Putnam Science Academy Robotics team will head to St. Louis, Mo., for the FIRST World Championships in April, for the second year in a row. FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 to foster student interest in science, technology, engineering and math. FIRST sponsors separate competitions for high school, middle school and elementary school students.

The Junior FIRST Lego League is for students in grades K-3, FIRST Lego League is for students in grades 4-8, FIRST Tech Challenge is for students in grades 7-12, and the FIRST Robotic Challenge is for students in grades 9-12.

The Robo Mustangs will compete in “Ring it Up,” the FIRST Tech Challenge. They will be one of the 24 teams in the competition. The game is played on a 12-foot by 12-foot diamond-shaped field. Two alliances of two teams each compete at a time. The object is to get a robot to place plastic rings onto pegs in a center rack. The more rings placed, the higher the score. Bonus points will be given to teams who detect special weighted rings. The matches consist of a 30-second autonomous period followed by two minutes of driver-controlled action.

Head coordinator Omer Seven said this year's PSA team had a bigger budget to work with and a wider outreach to the community. The team has 30 members, including 13 freshmen and sophomores. It was enough to start a second robotics team. And while the second robot, Horse Power, did not qualify for the championship, the students involved learned important skills. “It's been a tremendous year for PSA,” Seven said.

The Robo Mustang team will spend the time between now and April 24 modifying its robot. The 42-inch by 43-inch robot will be taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt to perform better. Team members will remove the omni wheels at each corner. The wheels were supposed to help the machine move in any direction, but the team found them unstable for the purposes of the game. They will replace them with tire treads which will help the robot climb more easily in the game arena. The team will also modify the draw-slide lift system so it can reach higher. Horse Power was able to go up 50 inches, while Robo Mustang went up 42 inches. “We'll use the best of both robots to make the final product,” Seven said.

Superwinch Director of Operations Daniel McCrory said robotic challenges such as those sponsored by FIRST teach students critical skills. “When we're looking to hire people, we don't always find good problem-solving and critical thinking skills,” he said. McCrory is the robotics coach at St. James School in Danielson, where his team of students competed in the FIRST Lego League competitions.

Students design, build and program robots, and spend a few months on trials and troubleshooting. “You write a program to do certain tasks and put the robot through its program and you expect a certain outcome,” McCrory said. “A lot of times you don't get that right out of gate. So we have discussions. We expected this, but it didn't happen. How come? What can we do differently? It’s the same sort of discussions we have with the engineers at work. To me it's a critical skill set to be able to learn these things and carry them through.”

McCrory thinks robotics programs should start in middle school and continue through high school. “It's a good opportunity for students to get into things they normally wouldn't,” he said.

Seven is on the same page as McCrory. Next year the PSA robotic team plans to do more community outreach. “We've been talking with middle school superintendents in the area,” he said. “We want to talk with students about robotics.”

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