Robotics competition challenges, inspires students

Feb 18, 2023

ROCHESTER — Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School was buzzing with activity as five schools from as far away as Wilton, Connecticut arrived on Saturday, Feb. 18 with robots in tow for the Vex Robotics Competition.

This was Old Colony’s first time hosting the competition, said engineering teacher and robotics coach Dan Brush.

The Vex Robotics Competition pits student-built robots against each other as they pick up and shoot frisbees into goals and cover ground with their bot to earn points.

Vex Robotics manufactures materials and kits that can be used by novice roboticists to make fully functional robots.

According to Brush, the Old Colony team started building their robots after school in the fall.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “The kids are really dedicated. We’ll have pizzas delivered and stay here until eight o’clock at night.”

Students learn about engineering, coding and most importantly, teamwork, said Brush.

“They’re building community with each other, which is really nice,” said Brush. “There’s a technical aspect but it’s a whole big, wonderful social thing.”

Kai Uhlin, an Old Colony student from Mattapoisett who drove a robot named Ralph, said that the first step in building a robot is making sure it can move.

He explained that the team gradually added on more complicated mechanisms and tools until the bot is competition-ready.

This year, the Old Colony team tried something ambitious.

The competition arena is made of square tiles. At the end of a match teams earn three points for each tile their robot touches. Any point of contact counts as “touching,” according to competition rules.

It has become standard practice in the Vex Robotics Competition to launch strings in the final 10 seconds of gameplay, with the goal of covering as many tiles as possible.

Where some teams use catapults or flywheels to launch their strings, Ralph was equipped with a triple crossbow mechanism that would launch strings in three different directions, covering as much ground as possible.

This design was a gamble, admitted the team.

If it worked, the crossbow would score a large amount of points. However, with a fragile and temperamental firing mechanism, there were a lot of ways it could fail.

As Old Colony student and Rochester resident Calvin Payne wound up the strings onto each crossbow before the qualifying matches, the team was called for inspection.

During inspection, said Brush, volunteers look over robots to make sure they only use Vex Robotics-manufactured parts, are no larger than an 18-inch cube, and have no dangerous or loose equipment.

This year’s inspectors had never seen a crossbow design before, let alone a triple crossbow.

“Is it actually [a crossbow]?” asked Austin DeSousa, an Old Colony alum who volunteered to inspect robots. “No way! That’s wicked, it’s medieval, that’s awesome”

“It has to work though,” replied Uhlin.

“There have been a lot of interesting designs to launch the rope at the end,” said DeSousa. “But I haven’t seen a crossbow.”

The team from Old Colony was scheduled to compete in the fourth round of qualifiers, but there was a problem, the crossbow didn’t work. The firing mechanism wouldn’t stay engaged once it was set, Ralph had no way of launching its strings.

As other teams began to compete, the Old Colony students sat on the sidelines and worked on Ralph like a pit crew fixing up a Formula One race car.

They disassembled and rebuilt parts of the robot while the clock was ticking down to their turn in the arena.

Minutes before their first qualifying round, the crossbow on Ralph was still not functioning. Payne tinkered with the bot while other team members ensured that the rest of the bot still worked.

Finally, Ralph was up.

Bots began to roll around the arena picking up yellow frisbees and firing them into goals. As the timer counted down to the end of the match, each robot activated its string launchers in a last-ditch effort to score points.

Ralph’s crossbows did not fire and despite deft piloting skills, the Old Colony team lost its first qualifying match 49 to 115.

But the team’s early loss didn’t dampen their spirits. They still had several qualifying matches ahead of them.

“Through all this, it’s very stressful [for the students], obviously,” said Brush. “Not a single kid has ever gotten angry — thrown a wrench or anything like that — they’re just hanging out and it’s really cool.”