High school robotics team readies for state tournament

By Wayne Bryan Published February 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

From the left, Rex Hearn holds a remote control as Dylan Wilcox and Buddy Williams watch Nick Gatlin prepare a robot for practice. They are members of the Hornet Engineering and Technology team at Bryant High School.

The exercise started like you would expect any high-tech project to get underway — the discovery of a problem and the search to see if it was a hardware problem or a computer glitch in the software.

The scene was Building 22 on the Bryant High School campus, and the exercise was the school’s team training for the Arkansas VEX Robotics Competition on March 1 in Russellville, the state robotics championship.

“We won last year’s competition and got an Excellence rating, and that got us into the World Championship in California,” said John Williams, engineering teacher and adviser for the Hornet Engineering and Technology team, or HEAT. “We finished the competition ranked in the top quarter of the 420 teams from across the country and 24 other countries.”

Williams said last year’s competition was the first championship for the state, and his team is focusing on holding onto its title and heading back to the world competition. This year, around 50 teams are expected to take part in the state competition.

To get the feel for the competition, the engineering department has an exact version of the robot competition course set up in the department’s workroom, the gift of one of the team’s corporate sponsors, Williams said.

Just outside the 12-foot-square “playing field,” team member Rex Hearn was working at a laptop computer, snapping questions to his teammates as he checked the program. They read back signals from their two robots and from the controllers — probably versions of video-game controllers — that guide the ’bots through the course.

The biggest glitch kept the robots from operating autonomously, traveling the course and picking up plastic balls and placing them in containers to score points.

“Each contest has an autonomous phase where the robots move totally on their own,” Williams said. “The students have learned to use some programs. The robots move the balls by themselves for 15 seconds. The team that is ahead at the end of that time gets 10 bonus points; then the rest of the two-minute competition is driver-controlled.”

The team decided to skip the true robotic section and give some drivers the practice of going through the competition using the wireless controllers to move their robots, which must be no larger than 18 inches long, wide or tall. At the end of the contest, the robot will be given a chance to hang from a bar suspended near the field’s home corner.

“The robot would have to reach and grasp the bar and do something like a pull-up,” Williams said.

For two minutes the drivers, Nick Gatlin and Sunny Oppal, led their machines around the field as they scooped up the smaller plastic balls into the basket, then dumped them into containers that are not much wider than the balls themselves. Then the robots picked up an inflated plastic ball, much like a small beach ball, and set it carefully on top of the containers filled with the small balls.

The robots that move the balls over the halfway marker win some points, and placing the balls in the scoring containers earns even more points.

“We have two robots right now, with four to five students on the team that is assigned to the machines,” Williams said. “We are planning on building a third robot for another team so that everyone can take part in the competition.”

Robot building is something the HEAT team is good at. Last year the team built two ’bots for the 2013 VEX competition: Romulus and Remus, named for the mythical twins who founded Rome.

Romulus had a rough day at the state competition, requiring some quick repairs, and what the team called a “technicality,” which dropped the robot from first place to third. However, Remus, which was built in only three days and modeled after Romulus, won first place in the driver-skills challenge.

In November, a small HEAT team opened the high school robotics season with a competition at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said Debbie Norris, a math teacher at Bryant and a member of the engineering program.

“A box arrived filled with stuff you might find if you cleaned out a cabinet in your garage. The idea was to build a robot from the parts,” she said. “The body of the robot was made of wood, and it had to be bolted to the movable platform.”

The robot constructed by the team won first place as the most robust machine, and the team won the Spirit and Sportsmanship Award.

Several robot competitions were scheduled at high schools around the state, but all were canceled because of bad weather, including a robotics tournament scheduled

for Feb. 8 at the Bryant High School gym. That event was canceled after snow hit the area the night before the event.

Out of a student population of 2,700, about 200 students take part in Bryant High School’s engineering program. Students can start the program of elective classes as early as the ninth grade, but Norris said many of the students wait until their junior or senior year, when there is more time to take electives.

Within engineering, there are class programs for engineering design and development, aerospace, architecture and digital electronics.

“Most of the students are academic kids, strong students in all their classes,” Williams said.

Norris said several graduates are working with atomic energy in the U.S. Navy, and one works at Disney.

Some of the high school classes also qualify for college credit, Norris said.

The Bryant middle schools also have an engineering program, and Williams said it will be expanded to the elementary schools next year, starting with the fifth-graders.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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