Staples robotics team is programmed for success
There are eight components of the Staples High School robotics team, The Wreckers 577. Seven are human high school students, but the eighth is a metal-framed robot. It is the latter member that commands attention from the other seven when they convene a team meeting in the home basement of brother-teammates John and Alec Solder.
"We can line it up here," says Haris Durrani, as he sizes up a U-shaped frame as a possible new addition to the robot.
"Would it be on a motor?" asks freshman Mrinal Kumar.
"A motor, definitely," Durrani replies. "We'll have to re-arrange the wiring"
As the two hold up the frame at different angles, junior John Solder walks over for a closer look.
"The most annoying thing for us is Murphy's Law," Durrani adds. "We always have these theories and designs, but you never really know until you test it."
In the last few weeks, however, very little has gone wrong for the Staples team. Last month, it won the Connecticut First Tech Challenge, a high school robotics tournament where more than 20 teams competed from the northeast region. The victory qualified them for the First Tech Challenge World Championship that will be held April 27-30 in St. Louis.
As they prepare to compete at the world event expected to attract 500 teams from 50 nations, team members are laboring about 20 hours each week to expand their robot's capabilities.
"We've got the system down, but now we've got to get it down at the next level," John Solder says. "We may have won Connecticut, but we've got to improve."
To test new functions, the team uses a model 12-by-12-foot competition field laid out in the Solders' basement. There, the robot runs through routines that will score points in competition. These tasks include "harvesting" or collecting batons from a wall dispenser, depositing them in cups placed on casters, and balancing the robot on a wooden teeter totter.
The Wreckers 577 team -- the name refers to the team's competition identification number -- builds and tweaks the robot from a standardized list of parts that all teams must use. While the Staples bot features a mechanical arm that collects the batons, the contraption compresses into a container that measures 18 inches cubed to meet tournament requirements.
Directing every movement is the robot's "brain," a brick device with a microprocessor that receives programming code wirelessly or through a wired connection from a computer and uses those instructions to control the robot's motors. Team co-founder Timothy Yang writes that code using a programming language called ROBOTC.
Those instructions guide the robot in the two parts of robotics tournament matchups. In the first stage, the robot performs its tasks unmanned or "autonomously." Then, in the second phase it teams up with another team's robot to face off against two other teams' bots when team members can control their device with a joystick. The team alliance with the highest point total progresses to the next round.
"It requires a pretty solid base of a robot to work off," Yang says of his programming. "You need something that's consistent, otherwise you won't be able to make a program that can do the same thing over and over."
As he writes the code, freshman Dylan Roncati watches. Seniors Yang and Durrani founded the robotics team four years ago, but this year lead a team of newcomers. Self-taught, they impart their expertise to the less-experienced members.
"We start doing stuff, they see what we're doing, and they get their experience that way," Durrani says. "You can learn it in a classroom, but hands-on experience is key."
This year, the 577 team also features its first female member, freshman Erin Gandelman.
"Most girls my age wouldn't even consider this," she says. "But actually understanding this stuff is what's cool."
While the team uses the Wreckers name in competitions, it is essentially an independent venture. The Westport-based commodities trading firm Triple Point Technology sponsors the team, but 577ers cover travel and robot-building expenses.
The Staples team's state champion robot cost about $2,500 to build, and team members are cognizant of the financial commitment needed to participate in tournaments.
"At the competitions, it's really competitive," Kumar says. "It's a relatively expensive and time-consuming process so everybody wants their work and money to pay off."
Despite high operational costs, the new crop of 577ers say they are committed to powering the team to success after Durrani and Yang graduate.
"Our team focuses on a policy of handing down the legacy," John Solder says. "Our teachers and mentors are Tim and Haris. They've passed everything down to us."
After more mechanical and programming adjustments, the 577 robot awakens as freshman Alec Solder takes control of the joystick. It darts across a ramp on the field and approaches a baton dispenser. There, he maneuvers the bot's arm to snatch a cluster of batons.
"It's a great experience," he says. "I helped to build this robot, and now this is what it can do."
Swiftly pivoting, the bot careens across a teeter totter before dropping the batons in a cup. As the bot makes this deposit, Gandelman crouches down for a closer inspection.
"This is like being on a sports team, but it's something more," she says. "It's intellectual. You made something and now it's doing something. That's amazing."
More information about the Staples High School robotics team is available on the team's website, www.wreckerrobotics.com.