First Robotics: The Ultimate Challenge

“Do you believe in this team?”

It was a simple question, but when Gregory Vrooman uttered it as he and his FIRST Robotics team members entered the Cox Convention Center there wasn’t a simple answer.

Sure, they believed in themselves. They had to, right?

Vrooman, a Stillwater senior in Meridian Technology Center’s Pre-Engineering academy, is one of 30 students who has spent nearly three months perfecting Ares, a student-built robot for the Oklahoma Regional For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics competition.

Robotics teams apply practical engineering concepts to build and program a robot that performs a prescribed task against a field of competitors. This year teams competed in Logomotion, a game where robots pick up, transport and place inflated tubes on a scoreboard. The tubes are in the shape of a circle, triangle and square, representing the components of the FIRST logo. Points are given based on the ability to place pieces on the scoreboard and additional points are given if the tubes are able to replicate the logo.

Teams can gain additional points using a second robot that is housed within their initial robot. Following the Logomotion game a miniature robot can be released climb a pole and trigger a pressure plate for extra points.

As one of the two drivers for the team, Vrooman’s question seemingly tested his other team members.

“I said, do you believe in this team?” he asked again.

No one answered.

Vrooman continued, “Because if we as a team don’t believe, no one will. So I will ask you again, do you believe?”

Nearly in unison the other members finally answered, “Yes, we believe!”

Tryon area home schooled student Josiah McGinnis, the second member of the drive team, laughed and added, “I believe in the team. Now I just need to believe this robot will work like it is supposed to.”

With that, the four-member team moved their robot into position and the game began.

The Season of Challenge

Despite the belief that success was on the horizon, members of Meridian’s team and the robot Ares struggled throughout the first day of competition and finished with a losing record and mid-contest placement of 46 out of 52 teams.

Missing nearly two weeks of build time due to snowy weather, team members quickly found themselves behind in the challenge. This was something they had expected to overcome by the first day of competition, but it was evident that winter’s wrath had taken more of a toll on their construction than many had anticipated.

“Without a doubt the weather totally changed our game plan,” said Stillwater senior Riley Sutton. “Instead of having a week or so to practice with the completed robot, we only had the day before the competition to see how it functioned and to work out the kinks.”

In fact, team members were still making adjustments as the competition was under way. From tinkering with the mini robot to eliminating unnecessary parts to meet contest weight restrictions, immediately following each round on the field, team members worked to improve Ares’ performance.

“The changes we are doing are going to change the game for us,” predicted team member Kyle Ross of Mulhall-Orlando. “The little things we are doing now are going to pay off in the end. We’ve finally got our mini bot up and running, and I think that’s what will set us apart.”

The Ultimate Finale

The final day of competition proved to be victorious for Ares. Winning each of the remaining challenges and having its mini robot successfully deploy, team members found themselves in the most unlikely position – the finals.

As part of this process a team captain is selected and has the responsibility of selecting two other teams to join them in an alliance to compete with the other finalists. Stillwater senior Paige Christy was honored with this role.

“It was a place we certainly didn’t expect to be in at the end of day two,” she said.

Throughout the competition a subset of team members were tasked with scouting the other teams and used a student-created computer program to calculate which teams would be the best teams to form an alliance with based on their previous performances.

Pre-Engineering Academy student Nathan Smith developed this program with the intent of quantifying their opponents.

“It’s too easy to look back and say ‘Oh, this team did well,’ or ‘We like this team,’ when you are trying to decide who you should form alliances with during the competition,” Smith said. “This program is designed to take the guesswork out of everything and tell the true story of which teams we need to partner with. The numbers don’t lie.”

In the end, the numbers did tell the final story. Ares lost two rounds of the finals competition leaving Meridian’s FIRST Robotics team alliance finishing the season in 8th place.

In spite of the ups and downs of the challenge, everyone on the team agreed they walked away winners.

“It’s hard to believe that we ended the first day in the bottom third and ended up not only in the finals but in a position to select teams for the alliance,” said team mentor and Meridian computer aided drafting instructor Russell Frick. “Those are odds you want to go to Vegas with. No one expects you to come back from where we were. I am one happy teacher that’s for sure.”

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