Legos come to life at Paly Robotics

"My electronic eye perceives red, green and yellow blobs. I follow my programmed instructions to proceed forward until my limited senses allow me to grasp the object with my claw. Until this crucial instant, I inch forward blindly like a person stumbling toward light in a dark room. I am a robot and I obey my programmer’s code."

Well, that is not really my voice; it’s my imitation of what my robot might say if it could talk while proceeding through a game of Botball, one of the Paly robotics club’s two annual robotics competitions. Getting into the "mind" of a robot, and exploring its thinking is one of the many challenges that makes Botball, and robotics in general, interesting.

Botball involves up to two Lego robots that have to act autonomously for 90 seconds. Each year, teams across the country must build and program these robots to complete a specific task.

This year, the robots had to earn points by moving balls to specific goal areas on a field approximately the size of a ping-pong table. The field was divided into three parts by plastic pipes. The two end zones, with small balls dispersed throughout, made up the majority of the field. The middle region consisted of a platform with most of the larger balls that could be pushed onto either side for points. To earn points, robots had to pick up the balls and place them into different goals on their side.

After our team found out the challenge for this year, the entire team spent a week brainstorming and debating various strategies while munching on piles of cookies. We discussed different design options and ideas on the best way to make our robots accomplish certain tasks.

This year, we decided to have two robots: one that would seek out the small balls, and another robot that would grab the larger points in the middle. To build these two robots, we decided to split up into two groups to work on each one separately.

The Botball team had finished putting together only one Lego robot by the last week before the competition, and had not even started programming it. As the deadline drew nearer, the team really came together and worked long and hard to finish preparing for the competition. We kept ourselves going through the day and night before the competition on pizza.

Building a robot could be done by one person, but it helps to be able to discuss design issues with others to avoid getting stuck. We needed to accomplish programming tasks such as making the robot use the camera to hunt for objects and making it keep track of its direction.

Testing also needed teamwork. It took one person to place the robot in the starting position, and another person to run and stop the program. After the robot had finished running, both people would discuss problems they saw and find a solution.

This year, Paly competed at the regional competition, which included 26 teams, on April 22. During the competition, teamwork was especially critical. There time between games was cramped, and team members had to cooperate to successfully do the necessary work for the upcoming round. When something did not work as expected, the team had to swiftly fix the problems. We were able to complete many matches, but we were not able to get enough points to win since we did not finish one of our robots.

Paly first competed in Botball last year. Paly senior Leo Franchi was instrumental in getting the robotics team involved in its first Botball competition. He led Botball again this year.

According to Franchi, a major setback in the Botball team’s performance this year was the lack of organization. People were not able to focus on specific jobs, in part because there were not enough people participating this year. When asked what the team should aim to do better next year, Franchi responded that team members need "more defined roles," "a roadmap," and to "be aware of what they personally need to do."

Although we won several matches, we did not place at the regional and could not participate in the national competition in July. I am confident that eventually Paly will be able to participate in the national competition, but the robotics club will first need more students to sign up next year, with the loss of seniors Leo Franchi and Reid Kleckner.

Whatever may be the case, I will be working on next year’s Botball competition, thinking those same thoughts: "Turn left until I see a yellow spot, go forward up to the wall, and drop the ball."