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Beach Cities Robotics compete in “Rebound Rumble”

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Chris Golden and Michael McPherson situate the team’s robot on the competition court. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

Chris Golden and Michael McPherson situate the team’s robot on the competition court. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

A group of high school students – clad in orange sweatpants, funky wigs and plastic safety glasses – huddled excitedly around a blue-and-orange, wheeled structure made of metal and wires.

The Mira Costa and Redondo Union students, all part of the Beach Cities Robotics Team, were going through a “pre-game checklist” making sure their made-from-scratch robot was ready for the next round of abuse it would take at the Los Angeles FIRST Robotics Competition held last weekend in Long Beach. More than 1,500 students from 66 high schools participated.

Chris Golden and Michael McPherson help prepare the team’s robot to compete. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

Chris Golden and Michael McPherson help prepare the team’s robot to compete. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

Competition season kicked off six weeks ago, when robotics teams around the world were told to build robots to compete in “Rebound Rumble” – a basketball game where each robot tries to score as many baskets as possible in two-minute matches. Hoops are stationed at different heights – the higher the basket, the more points scored. The teams also receive points if they can drive their robots to balance on a teeterboard with another team’s robot.

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“It’s like the best place ever,” said team captain Chris Golden, about the competition, while he prepared the robot for its third match. Golden, a junior at Mira Costa, put in about 240 hours of work in the robotics lab since January. “The whole six weeks, running on four hours of sleep, all worth it at this point.”

Chris Golden and Michael McPherson clap and cheer after they controlled the team’s robot to balance on the teeterboard. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

Chris Golden and Michael McPherson clap and cheer after they controlled the team’s robot to balance on the teeterboard. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

Mira Costa sophomore Ryan Gulland changed the robot’s batteries for the match, while others reconnected wires and screws. Team members, wearing orange leis around their necks, clustered into their robot pit, which was surrounded by festive tables stocked with surfboard erasers, surfing robot pins, and colorful Gatorades to fuel them through the weekend.

Minutes later, a safety inspector approached. “What are you guys doing to stay safe over here?” he asked the group.

A team member pointed to the team’s fire extinguisher and stash of first aid kits.

When the time came for their next match, the students wheeled their robot to the arena. Golden and his driving partner, Michael McPherson, stood behind a plexiglass window, intently guiding their robot with remote controls. They scored four points that round – two for balancing on the teeterboard with another robot, and another two for making baskets. “This is the first match where everything worked,” Golden said later. “It’s just, hey, we’re starting to do things right. Let’s just get it faster now.”

Since January, the Beach Cities team of about 20 students and seven mentors had met almost every day to brainstorm strategies for their robot. How would the robot pick up balls and score? How would it balance and prevent itself from tipping over? “The purpose is to inspire students to go into science and technology fields,” said mentor Ken Sterk.

The students later presented their preliminary design to professional engineers from Northrop Grumman, who grilled them on their robot’s functionality. “This is what you would do as a professional engineer in the real world,” said mentor Lyndi Wu, who works for Google.

Following the design phases, the students ordered custom parts and began building. Wu said the process takes students through several components of engineering – physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, and computer science.

After six weeks, the team built a robot with seven-inch wheels that travels 14 feet per second in high gear, seven feet per second in low gear, and is able to push up to 150 pounds. “It pushed me,” Golden said, triumphantly. “I just laid on the ground and put my feet up against the buffer and it pushed me.”

The Beach Cities Robotic Team’s robot balances on the teeterboard with another team’s robot. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

The Beach Cities Robotic Team’s robot balances on the teeterboard with another team’s robot. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

The robot is programmed with sensors and a camera so it can determine if it’s facing toward the basket and the angle it’s attempting to shoot. “We program the robot to be able to take the sensor input and respond appropriately,” Wu said.

“I’m really astounded with what we’ve managed to make in six weeks,” said Costa’s Gulland, who put about 150 hours into the project.

Team captain Golden concurred. “It’s really satisfying. This is definitely one of the hardest games we’ve ever had,” he said. “There are so many variables – trying to shoot a ball, the different compression rates, the speed, the angle.”

The team was hoping to qualify for the world championships in St. Louis, but finished in second place in the semi-finals. “It was really great that we got that far,” Golden said. “LA is probably one of hardest competitions we go to because a lot of the local teams are very competitive.”

However, in two weeks, the students will take their robot to Cheney, Washington, to compete in another regional competition. “Now that we have experience and know what’s going on and the things that can go wrong, it’s going to be a lot easier of a competition,” Golden said. “We have a really, really good chance of winning.”

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