When robots compete, students are the winners

Local high schools among 51 teams in regional games at BU

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

As the crowd cheered wildly, six remote-controlled robots raced around a track at Boston University's Agganis Arena, like rickety shopping carriages battling in a cage match. The House of Pain's hit song "Jump Around" blared from the loudspeakers.

But the commotion didn't faze Mike Caneja and Ryan Ollis, who were focused solely on Robot No. 1153. Wearing plastic safety glasses, they stood side by side, using two joysticks to guide Walpole High School's homemade vehicle around the carpeted racetrack to victory.

They ended up winning 12 matches, earning the Walpole RoboRebels a silver medal in the Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Regional Robotics Competition last weekend.

"When you're in a match, you have tunnel vision," said Ollis, an 18-year-old senior who joined Walpole High's robotics team four years ago. "You block out all the other noise; you don't even notice it. You're just focused on driving and getting as many points as possible."

The annual competition has been described as a Super Bowl of science fairs, and has the spirit of a high school pep rally, with students sporting dyed hair, face paint, pom-poms, and costumes. More than 1,000 students participated in the event, which drew 51 high school robotics teams from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Each team was given a set of parts in January. The students then spent six weeks designing and building their machines, outfitting them with mechanical arms, claws, sensors, and cameras. The robots are generally just under 5 feet tall, with long, extendable arms used to capture a bouncy inflated ball.

They competed in groups, with three teams to a side, in a game called Overdrive. Each match lasts two minutes and 15 seconds, and robots score points by making counterclockwise laps around the track, and moving the inflatable ball across a finish line. A team racks up more points whenever its robot hoists a ball up and over the overpass structure that is suspended above the finish line, and whenever one knocks an opponent's ball down from the overpass.

In addition to Walpole, four other schools from suburbs south of Boston competed in the event and won awards.

Westwood and Bridgewater-Raynham Regional both made it to the semifinals. The Bridgewater-Raynham students, who were decked out in yellow, orange, red, and blue tie-dyed T-shirts, formed a huge cheering section in the stands, rooting for their robot, TJ Squared. They chanted. They clapped. They held up blue signs. They banged sticks against empty plastic water jugs. Their vocal efforts didn't go unnoticed by the judges; at the end of the event, TJ Squared took home the Team Spirit Award.

South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover made its debut at this year's competition with a robot called Thor. The team got knocked out in the quarterfinals, but took home an award for being the highest-seeded rookie team at the end of the qualifying rounds.

Representing the Quincy Public Schools was Team HYPER, for Helping Youth Pursue Engineering and Robotics, which has been around for 11 years. That team made it to the semifinals and was given the Rockwell Automation Innovation in Control award for its "application of control components to provide unique machine functions."

The Walpole RoboRebels had hoped to win first place in the regionals, but were defeated in the final round by Tewksbury Memorial High School, Trinity High School of Manchester, N.H., and a team from Clifton Park, N.Y. The Tewksbury High team and its partners from New York and New Hampshire get to compete this month in the national FIRST Championship in Atlanta.

"We were really happy that we managed to get into the playoffs," said Brian Gaffey, the 16-year-old lead programmer for the RoboRebels. Gaffey wrote a lot of computer code for the Walpole RoboRebels, and helped calibrate a camera that assists the robot in knocking the ball off the overpass.

"A lot of hard work goes into the robots," Gaffey said. "It's hard work, but it's fun. And competing in the regional is a blast."

Walpole's robot, which team members nicknamed "Sergeant Sizzler," won't be going to the national championship in Atlanta, but it will be on display in the main lobby at Walpole High School, right next to the trophy case.

The Walpole RoboRebels are also looking forward to screening "Nuts and Bots," a documentary about the team's trials and tribulations over the past year. The documentary is scheduled to be shown at Walpole High's annual film festival next month.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at

Beep, beep!

Fifty-one high school robotics teams involving more than 1,000

students competed Saturday at Boston University's Agganis Arena, under these rules:

Each team is given a common kit of parts to build a robot

Robots must weigh less than 120 pounds

Additional parts are OK, up to $3,500; no single piece may cost more than $400

Alliances of three robots each compete against one another

Robots knock down 40-inch inflated balls and move them around a track; they maneuver over or under a 6-foot-6-inch overpass

Extra points scored if robots return balls to the overpass

Total time per match: 2 minutes 15 seconds


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