Three...Two...One… The metal robot springs to life, knocks over a ball, and places a foam block into a holding container. In the next two and a half minutes the robot(and it’s driver) will attempt to fill the container completely full with the foam blocks. Thirty seconds left and the robots drives onto a wobbly plate, balances, and time runs out. The round is over.
This is the First Tech Challenge (FTC), a robotics competition where teams build robots to perform specific tasks and then compete against each other in a tournament. The Harborfields Robotics Club has been working hard the last 4 months building their robot for this competition. Led by the club president, senior, Ben Messing, the Harborfields Robotics Club is finding a lot of success so far in the competition.
This is Ben’s fourth year in the club and his second year as president. With a large influx of new members this year, Ben decided it would be best to split the club into three different teams that would compete separately in the FTC competition. This gives our school a better chance of success in the tournament and also allows for more engineering and innovating by the club students. Having three teams is no easy task. Ben has to watch over all of the teams, organize separate team meetings, buy parts for all the teams, and overall guide the club in the right direction.
In an exclusive interview, Ben explained how the senior-junior team’s robot works. “We have a unique intake system in which we load the foam blocks in the robot horizontally with some wheels. The robot lifts them up and with a flipper we can stack them vertically.” Ben designed 24 individual 3D printed parts for the robot using CAD software.
During the last few weeks, the robotics club participated in two qualifiers, hoping to move on to the next round in the competition, the regionals. The first qualifier was a pretty big disappointment for the senior team. “It was going alright,” said senior team lead programmer Jack Taliercio. “We were performing nicely the first round. And then our robot bricked after I may or may not have ripped a cable out of our robot that powers it on.” Although the senior team had trouble, the sophomore team qualified with their efficient robot. And the senior team did win the design award for Ben’s work with CAD. So the qualifier wasn’t a complete disappointment.
But right away, the seniors went back to work and fixed the broken robot. The next week, the club went to another qualifier and this time things was different. “Our robot remembered that it is not a brick and it is a robot. We tore up the competition and we got the highest score of the day,” Ben exclaimed. Three out of the six final teams in this qualifier were from HF.
With all this success by the robotics club and its student engineers, Ben’s hoping that Harborfields High School will expand its engineering program or at least give some more support to the club. “We get no funding from the school,” Ben explains. The club requires money for parts, registration, and transportation among other things. Because of this, the club had to reach out to sponsors to gather donations. “Our budget this year is coming to around $6000. We raised most of that from corporate sponsors.” Ben hopes that in the future the school will put more support behind the ever growing STEM field. “The school does give us Mr. Pinto, so it’s a trade off.”
For the next round of the competition, Ben and the senior team will be adding an arm to the robot that can lift a “relic” and drop it outside the game field. If the team places in that competition, they will move on to the super regionals in Pennsylvania. And if they succeed in that, they’ll make it to the World Championship in Detroit.
Whatever happens in this year’s tournament, Ben is ensuring the robotics club will live on for years to come. The next tournament will be a juniors only meet. The seniors will step away and let the juniors take control of all the leadership aspects of the competition. Along with that, the freshman team will give the club strong leadership for the next four years. Ben and the rest of the robotics team are hoping that in the future the high school will recognize robotics as something much bigger than it’s currently viewed as, and that someday the school will add a robotics class or engineering lab. The club certainly has the credentials that proves their commitment to robotics.
“I would say our successes this year aren’t in the robot we built, but more in the club that we’ve built,” Ben says. He tells me that the goal of robotics club is is to make it an open place that anyone can walk into and have a place where they can feel accepted and build what they want. “It’s really a great feeling how far we’ve come over the past few years.” And I’m sure the club will go even further in the future.