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Upstarts upset high schoolers in robot joust

Southborough youngsters triumph by keeping things simple

P-Bot stands on two wheels, has four motors, a bendable claw, and a brain created out of a Gameboy Advance. He isn't pretty -- with globs of glue connecting the mismatched Lego pieces that consitute his body -- but he gets the job done.

The robot led a middle school team from Southborough to victory in the sixth annual New England Botball Tournament held at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell this month, one of several regional competitions sanctioned by The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics in Oklahoma.

Winning first place overall came as a shock to the four boys, who range in age from 8 to 11. It came as a bigger shock to the members of the 10 high school teams who lost.

This was the first year the Southborough team competed in the tournament and the first time a middle school won it. In addition to the high school teams, four others from middle schools participated this year.

''I didn't think we'd be the worst, but we never thought we'd be first," Jeremy Abend, 11, said while showing off the robot he helped create in the basement of his Central Street home. ''We thought because of our age we'd be killed by these high school kids."

Three of the four Southborough boys are students in the fourth and fifth grades at Margaret A. Neary School, including Abend, 11-year-old Justin Averback, and 10-year-old Peter Scorzelli. The youngest is 8-year-old Abhinav Venigalla, a third-grader at the Woodward School.

But their age may have worked to their advantage. Unlike their older competitors, they weren't too smart for their own good.

They kept their robot simple, and that was key to their success, said Northborough native Holly Yanco, assistant professor of computer science and one of the Botball organizers. While other teams built sophisticated robots that used cameras and color sensors, the Neary boys relied only on programming to make sure their robot completed the required tasks.

''What helped them win was maybe their design and a little bit of luck," said Yanco, who specializes in adapting robotics to wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.

''The unusual thing is their team had an 8-year-old. That is the youngest I've ever seen," Yanco said. ''I think the trophy is bigger than the youngest kid."

Botball requires teams to build and program robots to accomplish a specific challenge. This year's was to build a robot that could rescue ''Botguy" and his fuzzy plush friends called Tribbles from a flood zone. The robot had to complete a series of tasks, each worth points. The winner was the team that accumulated the most points after 90 seconds of play.

Once the Neary team built P-Bot, they concentrated on writing the software program -- his brains -- that would tell him how to do his job.

Joshua Heinzl, 12, of Windham, N.H., served as a mentor to the team. The Southborough students met Heinzl, who is home-schooled, in First Lego League, a basic robot building and programming competition for middle school students. Heinzl's father, Carl, an engineer at I-Robot in Burlington, helped the students hone their skills at writing computer programs.

The team developed a program that allowed P-Bot to move around the course like a more sophisticated version of Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.

Because the Tribbles are always located in the same place on the course, the team programmed P-Bot to make precise movements and turns. The robot picks up the Tribbles with a claw and then drops them in their proper homes, which are color coordinated.

Over two months, team members spent up to five hours a day, three times a week working on P-Bot and a second robot, K-Bot, which they never used in the competition.

''It worked. We had the most consistent robot. We went undefeated," Averback said as his teammates fought to be heard while explaining their simple yet effective strategy.

''We focused on getting as much points as we could," Jeremy Abend added.

That straightforward approach is what often separates Botball winners from the pack, said Wellesley High School physics and robotics teacher Larry Lovett, who coaches his school's Botball team.

''In the past [the winner] always has been a school that has done the more simple stuff," said Lovett. ''My guys tend to get something that works and they tend to tweak it a little more until it doesn't work. [The Neary team] went about it in a slightly simpler way, and they did a great job."

The Wellesley team this year built a robot that used a camera to detect Tribbles by color, but shut the option off when the robot operated too slowly on the tournament floor.

The tournament aims to get students interested in science and math. ''You can learn about physics and how a wheel turns, but with robotics you can actually see it happening," Yanco said.

Learning was all the Neary team expected to achieve when it signed up for the tourney, but instead the students ''took the place by storm," said their coach and Jeremy's mother, Susan Abend.

''We just wanted them to learn some programming," said Abend, who has worked with the boys over the past two years as they competed in First Lego League.

''I'm really proud of them. They didn't just fixate on winning the prize, they wanted to do it right," Abend said. ''They never lost their heads."

As part of their win, the team will show off their cool heads and explain their robot and tactics to a gathering of electrical engineers at UMass-Lowell June 13.

The next step on the boys' journey should be Norman, Okla., for the National Botball Tournament July 7, where teams from around the country will compete. But since they never imagined that they would win in Lowell, they had all made other plans for that date.

''We're not sure if we can go," Susan Abend said. ''All the boys are enrolled in summer camp."

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