Absolute Lunacy for Robotics Team

WINDSOR LOCKS, CONN – Students from Suffield and Windsor Locks High Schools face a high-tech puzzle that would confound any modern-day Edison; it’s pure Lunacy.

For the next six-weeks a combined team from both schools, who call themselves “Aces High,” must assemble, program, and navigate a robot before they and it ship out for the FIRST Robotics Competition in Atlanta in April.

FRC, founded by Dean Kamen, a world-renowned inventor and entrepreneur, brings together 1700 teams from the U.S. and 10 other countries as they must master a robot game called Lunacy.

Students and supporters packed the Windsor Locks High School auditorium for a two-hour webcast last Saturday morning hosted by Kamen at his headquarters in Manchester, NH.  

The young engineers and computer whizzes waited patiently for this year’s challenge and a kit that contained the guts and brains of a lifeless and disassembled robot. 

The game seems simple enough, gather up nine-inch balls that have different values and drop them in baskets that rove around the court. Except the surface that the wheels travel over simulate the moon’s gravity that is one-fifth of the Earth’s. 

Chaos and crashes should dominate the competition, which resulted in loud approval from the tee- engineers.

Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and life-saving, medical devices, started U.S. First (Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989.  

His mission is to turn students on to science and engineering by hosting the annual competition which culminates with the trip to Atlanta.

“Why do we do FIRST? Because the world is a mess,” said Kamen.  He wants students out of their comfort zone and see the world at-large. He told the students that two-thirds or roughly four-billion people exist on less than a two-dollars a day.

Kamen sees technology not only as a way for the students to make a future living, but a way to save the planet and to uplift others.

Once the game was revealed, though, the clock started and the pressure will intensify over the next six-weeks as the students face a scrimmage on February 14 at Suffield High School. 

The scrimmage allows the team to work out mechanical and programming problems before the regional at the Hartford Convention Center March 13-15. The last part of the gauntlet takes place in the Georgia Dome April 17-19.

John Fisher, President of Aces High, said, “I’ve seen a lot of teams do really well and it’s  inspiring and I want our team to do that.”  He said he needs to get his team to work as “efficiently as possible.”

The home-schooled senior will not only oversee the build portion, but he must manage a number of sub-groups and have the large team focus on the task-at-hand.

“Will be debating for longer than we should. When you only have six-weeks to build, you need to make decisions quickly on what you’re going to build and identify what the best route is to take when designing,” said Fisher.

Fisher said this year is particularly important to the team, as it will mark the tenth anniversary when a team from Windsor Locks won the international competition.  They hope to do the same.

Bill Pease, who teaches physics and chemistry at Windsor Locks High School, acts as leader and adviser for Aces High. He said though he and other mentors provide guidance for the team, there is no hand holding.

“To really get the most out of it, they find they have to get in there, find out what needs to be done because people aren’t going to come out and say, ‘well, no, no, do this,’” said Pease. “They actually have to find things. When things get really busy everybody starts working.  If you don’t find your way, you kind of end up watching on the sidelines.”

He said it is all about problem solving, which includes the first problem for the students, how to play the game before they can construct the robot.  “You start with big problems and you work your way to the smaller and more and more detail problems.”

Pease said after the event in Atlanta, the team still participates in off-season competitions.

After the game was revealed, mentor, Ron Horn handed out the robotic kits to area teams, which includes his team, Aces High.  The components, stuffed in several boxes, weigh in at a total of 500 pounds.

Horn said the components are advanced and first-rate technology. Some of the parts include a control system, batteries, chips, motors, wheels, a pneumatic system, and electrical pieces.

The teams must work within established parameters set out by the FRC. He said what he and the others mentor do, is to make the students aware of the difficulties of taken on such a feat and how to succeed.

Horn said the students “anticipate” more than “dread” what is contained in the boxes. “A lot of them don’t have enough experience to dread the situation yet.  I think you see adults looking and saying, ‘well, there’s a lot of challenges sitting there in front of us.’ It’s a question of how do we manage those challenges and get to where we want to be in six-weeks.”

Aces High will hold a scrimmage at Suffield High School on February 14. To learn more about the FIRST Robotics Competition, go to: http://www.usfirst.org

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