February 2, 2013

Gardiner robotics team prepares for statewide 'bot battle in April

FIRST Robotics Regional Competition, to be held April 4 to 6 in Lewiston; team creates robot that can fire off flying discs

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

GARDINER -- The wheeled robot zipped across the classroom floor, abruptly stopping at the feet of the spectators before jerking back just as swiftly.

click image to enlarge

Members of the Gardiner Area High School robotics team wire the robot they are building Thursday at the high school. The completed robot will launch Frisbees into goals while being operated remotely, at an April competition.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

Gardiner Area High School robotics team member Ian Basford, right, steer his team's robot Thursday with dual joysticks, while teammate Harris Plaisted checks the code for the remotely operated machine on a computer.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

"We haven't clocked it, but they'll move pretty quick," Aaron Basford, the lead mentor for the high school's robotics team, said at the Thursday team meeting at Gardiner High School.

The robot, which looks like a miniature scissor lift without the basket on top, eventually will be able to shoot flying discs at targets while battling other robots in a competition that resembles disc golf.

It's the result of almost a month of work by a team of 15 students who will compete against nearly 40 other high school teams in the For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Regional Competition, to be held April 4 to 6 in Lewiston.

The club, now in its second year, competed last year at the regional competition held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. FIRST is a worldwide program that encourages students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields through a variety of robotics competitions.

Students spend six weeks designing and building the robot, which must weigh less than 120 pounds and stand less than 5 feet tall. At the regional competition, they'll join with two other high schools to compete against another three-school team.

The type of competition changes each year. This year the teams' robots must shoot discs into goals on the top of the arena wall, both autonomously and when controlled by the students.

Teams also get bonus points for climbing the rungs of a tower with their robots.

Winners of the regional competition or other awards progress to the championship in Missouri.

Basford said he started the team at Gardiner Area High School last year to give students, such as his son, who's part of the club, an opportunity to progress from the FIRST LEGO League team at the middle school.

The LEGO League is competition for middle school students that has them building small robots with LEGO sets.

Building interest

Paul Fowler, another mentor for the robotics team, said they've tripled the number of students involved this year compared to last.

"They crashed their way through it last year. This year they know what they're doing," he said.

For students looking to study engineering, computer programing or other related fields in college, the program offers a chance to get hands-on experience while still in high school, Basford said.

"Then there are other kids that might not be in school if it wasn't for this," he said.

There's also more to do than just building the robot. One student interested in filmmaking is working on a short documentary about the process and the program's importance, Basford said. Another student is writing the program's blog and text for the website.

"The program opens up a whole different realm that they wouldn't otherwise be able to be exposed to," Basford said.

Justin Ladner, a senior on the team who plans to study engineering in college, said the project allows him to put what he's learned in class to use.

"I get a little taste of what the concept of engineering is before I major in it," he said.

Ladner is in charge of building and maintaining the team's website -- something he didn't know how to do before Paul Seed, one of the mentors, taught him.

Now, because of the robotics team, Ladner plans to minor in software engineering.

Like Ladner with website design, junior Harris Plaisted knew nothing of programming before Basford taught him how to write programs to control the robot. Plaisted said he now plans to major in computer science in college.

(Continued on page 2)

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