Robotics teams from Western Pennsylvania, nationwide add human element to mechanized battles |
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Jamie Martines
St. Josephs Spartan Robotics team members Ethan Fontana (left), a junior, and senior Mason Yohe, make adjustments to their robot, during the Greater Pittsburgh Region FIRST Robotics competition, at California University of Pennsylvania, in California, on Friday, March 17, 2017.

Bright lights illuminated the arena as the jumbotron glowed overhead. Loud music boomed over the sound system, competing with the announcer’s voice as he called the match.

The crowd went wild as the final seconds ticked away — victory! Team 1708, Amp’d Robotics of McKeesport Area High School, secured another win.

They won the battle, but the war wasn’t over yet. It was only the third qualifying match of 11 that Amp’d Robotics, one of 40 teams at the FIRST Robotics Greater Pittsburgh Regional Competition, would compete in this weekend.

Nearby robotics teams and those from as far as China and Hawaii gathered Friday at California University of Pennsylvania to put their robots to the test. The Greater Pittsburgh Regional Competition, which continues Saturday, is one of dozens of FIRST Robotics regional and district competitions that take place across the country each year.

“There’s no feeling like this anywhere,” said Avery Goldinger, a senior at McKeesport Area High School and five-year team veteran.

Goldinger is no stranger to competition. She also is a two-sport varsity athlete, competing in soccer and swimming.

And as of this year, McKeesport also will award varsity letters to the robotics team; after all, students spend just as much time designing, building and testing their robots as most athletes do at after-school and weekend practices over the course of a season, said Rebecca Ross, also a McKeesport senior and five-year member of the robotics team.

“It’s not just about the robot,” Ross said, adding that competition preparation involves community outreach, fundraising, graphic design of team logos and management of the team website and social media pages. It’s an inclusive team that truly has something for everybody, she said.

This year, teams had to build a robot capable of several complex tasks, such as collecting and shooting balls into a goal over eight feet tall and picking up gear-shaped weights and hanging them on a hook. The robots, which weighed close to 120 pounds, also had to be outfitted in such a way that allowed them to be hoisted more than 3 feet in the air by a rope in the final moments of the match. Teams earned points for successfully completing these tasks during matches.

Getting to competition weekend isn’t easy. In addition to working within tight time constraints — teams have just six weeks to design, build and test their robots — they must also adhere to a strict set of parts and building regulations.

“It teaches you to work with a team, solve a problem and work within a deadline,” said Anthony Smyth, 17, of Blairsville and a member of the 4-H Gears team organized by Westmoreland County 4-H.

There are also financial constraints. Many teams do not receive funding from their school districts and often rely on fundraising or donations to purchase parts and tools. In addition, students rely on adult mentors who are familiar with the computer software and have the mechanical know-how to guide them through a high-pressure build season and the three-day competition.

“Everything on the robot is materials we’ve had,” said Cole Fitch, team captain and senior at St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights. He has been on the team since his freshman year. Like many schools at the competition, Fitch said his team has limited funding and can’t afford to buy new materials every year. That forces them to get creative with repurposing old parts and salvaging materials they’ve used in previous competitions.

Rookie team member David Herr said this hard work pays off, and that is what motivates him to return to the team next year.

“The satisfaction of seeing what you worked on for six weeks work” is what makes it all worthwhile, the junior said.

While the robots are impressive and the matches are riveting — each is two minutes and 30 seconds of intense game play that had the crowd on their feet — competitors say it’s the people who make the experience memorable.

Asked about her favorite part of the three-day competition, Natalie DePaulis, a senior at Gateway High School and four-year member of the Quasics, didn’t hesitate.

“How many people we’ve been able to help,” she said, explaining that other teams kept dropping by to borrow the Quasics’ band saw to cut materials needed to repair their robotics. DePaulis, who plans to study medicine and biology in college, said teamwork skills she has learned will go a long way in helping her participate in successful medical research projects in the future.

On the other side of the arena, where the team from the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center was preparing its robot for a new round in the ring, Yough senior Ashley McGee voiced similar feelings about the competition.

McGee surveyed the robot, discussing the challenges involved with getting the gear-lifting mechanism just right and pointing out the zip ties and duct tape that were essential to holding it together. But there was one more thing that made it all possible, she said: teamwork.

“It’s how we get this done,” McGee said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or [email protected].

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