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Let The Robot Battles Begin

Area Students Participate In March Madness-Style Robotics Event

By Vanessa de la Torre

March 31, 2012

Imagine March Madness but with robots.

Stocky robots propelling basketballs into hoops, and ramming into each other like bumper cars, and then being tuned up and greased during breaks. Their masters? Clever teenagers, a few of them donning superhero capes or blinking blue devil horns.

Such was Friday's quirky spectacle at the Northeast Utilities FIRST Connecticut regional showdown, which continues Saturday at the Connecticut Convention Center with bracket-like playoffs.

"Let's get this party started!" announced the event's hype man with the red mohawk.

More than 1,500 students from 64 teams in six states came to battle and form alliances in the robotics game called "Rebound Rumble." The top finishers will qualify for the FIRST Robotics National Championship in St. Louis late next month.

Among the opening day squads were Athena's Warriors, an all-girl team from West Hartford; the Techno-Nuts of Berlin; Simbury's Sim-City, sporting Trojan helmets; and the Weapons of Mass Construction from Hudson, N.Y. Even Texas was represented, by the Robonauts.

While Hartford schools were on a break this week, the city's Birds of Prey met at the Nest -- or Room 133 at Hartford Public High School -- to prepare for the regional. The Pratt & Whitney-mentored team won its first match Friday as part of a three-squad alliance.

The 25 students, mostly from Hartford Public's Engineering and Green Technology Academy and the Pathways to Technology Magnet High School, were also working to raise $25,000 to head to St. Louis after winning the Chesapeake Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Baltimore earlier this month.

The team's sponsors include United Technologies Corp. and the Hartford school system, which is chipping in $12,000 for the trip, but "we want to contribute to it," said team captain Raissa Lana, 17, a junior at Hartford Public. A school car wash is being planned. "It's a sense of pride."

For all FIRST teams, the work begins in January when the "kit" arrives. Students then have six weeks to build their robot with the parts. The machine, no heavier than 120 pounds, must be remote-controlled but also engineered to move autonomously.

This year's "Rebound Rumble" requires a robot to shoot its own baskets for 15 seconds at the start of a match. For the next two minutes, a team's duo -- the driver and the controller -- use joysticks to move the robot around the court to pick up basketballs and shoot. Extra points are awarded if the robot is balancing on a bridge in center court when time expires.

In building the 'bot, Birds of Prey Coach Melvin Guzman believes in the design principle KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

"It's usually the simplest designs that do well in the competition," said Guzman, 28, a former Prey driver and controller who returned as a mentor after graduating from Hartford Public in 2002. He works for the nonprofit Riverfront Recapture.

"They're easiest to fix, easier to work around," Guzman said. "It's a battle out there. Robots are hitting robots; parts are going to break. It's good to be robust."

The FIRST competition was co-founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Woodie Flowers.

On Friday, there was a celebrity sighting of sorts: Flowers, who signed autographs for students.

"He's a big deal," explained Yashee Munshi, 16, of Farmington.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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