Robotics team preps for regional, international competitions

Aaron Chum, Author

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The Paly Robotics Team has been working vigorously to prepare for tournament season. The prototype robot is seen in the background, with the control station for the robot in the front. 

– Nolan Perla-Ward

After hundreds of hours spent in the lab, the Palo Alto Robotics Team is primed for a series of regional tournaments cumulating in the international FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis, Mo.

The team will first compete in the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition Silicon Valley Regional from March 29-31 at San Jose State University. The team’s preparations for the tournament are well underway. Adviser Doug Bertain explained the robot would need packaged by Feb. 21. 

While the team has already qualified for the championship in St. Louis, the team still strives to succeed at the regional tournaments, according to Bertain.

“The biggest thing about regionals is there are about 12 things you can win, which qualify you for a championship next year,” Bertain said. “There are some big things we can win there, that’s what we go for.” 

The awards the team is trying to win at the regional competitions include the “Control System Award,” which pays for the winning team’s trip to the FIRST Robotics Championship .

Senior build captain Max Najork echoed similar sentiments to Bertain.

“At the regional events, we hope to use the opportunity to compete against a number of other strong teams and test our robot to work out any small problems we run into, to enable us to play strongly during the national championships,” Najork said.

The pinnacle of the robotics season will be the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis, Mo., April 25-28. 

“There are over 300 teams that show up to that event [the FIRST Robotics Championship] and they’re all the best teams from all over the world … There are over sixty countries from around the world that compete,” Bertain said.

Bertain was extremely optimistic about the robot this year, stating that it was the most complex robot the team has ever built.

New features on the robot include a sophisticated vision tracking system highlighted by the usage of an Xbox 360 Kinect device.

“We’ve had cameras on the robots in the past but not like this because [the Kinect system] can also detect distance,” Bertain said.

Other new features include an array of other sensors and six-wheel drive.

Yet not all of the work concerning the robot is simply physical.

Bertain credits junior programming captain Matthew Plant and the rest of the programming team on the work they have done with this year’s robot.

“He [Plant] is the brains behind the programming team,” Bertain said. “We have six people writing code for this. There are pages and pages of code in this thing already, it’s nuts”.

Plant is particularly pleased on how the motion tracking system came out.

“I really like how the vision tracking came out this year,” Plant said. “I honestly didn’t think that we’d be able to pull it off, but thanks to the superb effort of the rest of the programming team, we came up with some really great results”.

Nonetheless, the robotics team still faces many challenges as the build season winds down. Currently, the prototype robot weighs 150 pounds; the final build needs to cut 30 pounds to meet the 120 pound maximum.

Plant characterized the high tensions as the team prepares to finish the robot.

“We’re getting very close to the end of build season and there’s still a lot of work to be done on the robot,” Plant said. “Everyone’s stressed and tensions are high, it’s pretty ugly.”

Najork spoke about the hours he and the rest of the team have put into building the robot.

“Every day after school I try to spend around three or four hours in the robotics lab, with much more time spent in the lab over the weekend,” Najork said. “I think in total, I spend around 36 hours a week in the robotics lab, which is much more than the average for other members on the team. We started work at the beginning of January and now we’re getting to the end of our build season.”

Bertain emphasized the fact that the focus of the robotics program is to get students interested in engineering.

“The focus of [the robotics program] is not to learn how to build robots because all this technology will be obsolete in two weeks,” Bertain said. “It’s to get kids to major in engineering.”

Bertain stated that since the start of the robotics program in the United States, the graduate student population in engineering in the U.S. has more than quadrupled.

Bertain also spoke on other skills the robotics team has had to learn over the course of the year.

“Other skills the kids learn are taking a project to completion, working to [a $45,000] budget, and group dynamics,” Bertain said.

Najork also spoke about the skills he has learned as a member of the team.

“Robotics has done more for me that I could ever imagine,” Najork said. “Because of robotics, I’ve learned how to be a better leader and learned how to effectively present ideas to large groups.”

Bertain is optimistic about the team’s chances at internationals. 

“They have the ability to win it all, I’ll be bummed if they don’t win,” Bertain said.

The Paly robotics team will compete March 29-31 at San Jose State University for regionals and April 25-28 in St. Louis for internationals.

Click here for a short video of the robot in action.

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