Robots take the field to compete in Chestnut Hill

The energy level in Vare Field House at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy last weekend was a match for any sporting event – even though the “players” on the field weren’t even human. Instead, it was robots on the field. 

33 local teams from Philadelphia and the surrounding area squared off in what was billed as a “varsity sport for the mind,” a district event in the 2013 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, which pits scholastic teams from around the world against one another.

This year’s competition is the 22nd in the series. FIRST was founded by inventor Dean Kamen, best known for the invention of the Segway, to encourage excellence in science and engineering.

Each FIRST team is given a standard set of parts which they have six weeks to build a robot with. The robot must complete a set of tasks that changes each year. This year’s robots had to maneuver to shoot Frisbees into target slots and lift themselves off the ground at the end of the matches.

It’s a real challenge every year, and one that the host team at last weekend’s event – the Vulcans of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy – have distinguished themselves in more than once. They have placed as high as second and third among thousands of teams from around the world and last year finished 20th worldwide among 4,000 teams.

History of the Vulcans

The Vulcans are named for their sponsor, Vulcan Spring of Telford PA, which is headed by a school alum.

“Almost every team has an outside sponsor,” according to team mentor Peter Randall who along with team members was interviewed last week before the contest.

“Boeing is also one of our sponsors and they provided us access to one of our lead engineers. That’s one of the reasons for the success of the program – getting access to real engineers doing real work with real companies.”

The Vulcans have about 40 members of the team, said Randall, “which is actually a very small team.” But, he added, “We play hardball with the big boys.”

That the school has its own department of engineering and robotics is a big help, he said.

Fulfilling this year’s requirements of shooting Frisbees and climbing up off the ground was “diabolical,” said Randall.

Senior Graham Ervin, 18, of Bluebell, said, “The most important thing is learning from your mistakes and failures. It’s OK to fail.”

Several of this year’s team members have been involved with the Vulcans for years.

Senior Tim Menninger, said, “I got involved when I was a freshman. I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to do this.'”

The competition

The Vulcans were in an enviable position going into last weekend’s competition: the pressure was off. They had already qualified to move on in the tournament the previous weekend, at a district competition at Hatboro-Horsham High School, so they could use the event to fine tune their skills without worrying about the results.

In last weekend’s matches six robots at a time were on the court, which was about half the size of a basketball court and screened by nets to keep Frisbees from flying into the full house crowd.

Two teams of three robots each squared off at a time, with points awarded for the number of goals made and robots’ success in lifting themselves off the ground. Fouls were also assessed for encroaching into the other team’s assigned space.

All the robots were self-guided for the first 15 seconds of each match, having to make their way to their starting points. Then their human controllers took over for the next two minutes, and the machines really buzzed around the court. Amid the shouts and cheers of team members and supporters, it was reminiscent of a basketball game. 

“After a tumultuous battle – a great battle by both sides,” according to Randall, the Vulcans finished in third place.

FIRST encourages “gracious professionalism,” said Randall.

“The lead robot of the winning alliance [team] was broken,” he said. “We lent them new lights and a camera for the final match, which they used to beat us. [Gracious professionalism] was absolutely exemplified in that match.”

In fact the team was also received FIRST’s Gracious Professionalism award.

Moving forward

The next step for the team is the Mid-Atlantic regional championship at Lehigh University in April, said Randall. If they qualify there, they will head for St. Louis MO, where around 400 teams from around the world will compete in a three-day event.

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