By Tia Lynn Ivey managing editor
The Morgan County High School (MCHS) Robotics Team is hard at work preparing for the annual competition season that kicks off in the middle of March. The team requires a $17,000 budget in order to pull off creating a quality robot to compete. Robotics Instructor Alec Johnson is impressed with this year’s crop of students and the progress they have made thus far. “This has been our best build season yet! Our students have put their hearts and minds into this robot and we feel extremely confident that we will easily make it to the State Championships at the University of Georgia this year!” said Johnson. The RoboDogs, comprised of 30 team members, is in the middle of a six-week building phase of a robot designed to compete in the upcoming FIRST Robotics competitions.
FIRST, launched by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, looks to inspire students of all grade levels with a love of science, technology, engineering, and math. Spanning from first grade to 12th grade, multiple programs are available for all skill levels,” explained Colter Smith, senior level project manager for the MCHS RoboDogs. “Our team as a whole, which is comprised of around 30 people, work for six weeks to design, build, wire, program, test, and compete with our robot. At our competition, we work with, and play against, other teams of students to score the highest number of points and win matches. This year, we are playing a medieval-themed game called ‘FIRST STRONGHOLD,’ which features ‘boulders’ that we must pick up, cross defenses with, and then shoot into a castle. By shooting into the castle, we weaken it, gain points, and eventually we can climb the castle wall for even more points. However we aren’t alone. Teams are composed of three robots per team, also known as an alliance. We have two drivers, a coach, and even a pit to do repairs in! All of these come in the spirit of “gracious professionalism”, which is a way of thinking that promotes helping others and working as a team when competing, as well as being considerate to others.” On January 19, the RoboDogs learned exactly what kind of competition they would be preparing for this spring. “This year’s challenge has a medieval theme with objectives ranging from going over various obstacles to launching foam balls to scaling towers. With such variety, we have a lot of options for what we can build our robot to do,” said David Key, senior level project manager for the RoboDogs.
“For the first week, we purely brainstorm. It’s very important when building a robot to allow members to be as creative as possible.” According to Key, each member of the team is given a fair say in how to proceed with the creation of a robot for the competitions. “We do not criticize any idea, no matter how unrealistic it may be. The newest member’s ideas are given the same respect as senior members’ ideas. In order to breed the best ideas, you have to allow all ideas to flow and not have an idea dominate others,” said Key. “The second week, we begin to model our ideas and make them a reality. We primarily used K’NEXs as our modeling tool due to the flexibility in design. This was our first year using the K’NEXs, and they have made a significant improvement on our design process. It allowed us to transition more cleanly into more sophisticated prototypes. These prototypes allow us to see what does and does not work. In fact, while building one of our prototypes, we realized we could not use a key mechanism. If we hadn’t taken the time to prototype, we would spent all of our energy into building a robot which wouldn’t even work. Whenever we approach a challenge, we try to allow all ideas to be given equal respect and make those ideas into a tangible reality later on.” The RoboDogs construct their robot in a shop located in the Wellington building. The space is loaned out to the team by the Madison Machine Shop and the Lane Conrads Corporation.
The team meets in the shop Tuesdays through Thursdays and every Saturday and Sunday during the six-week building phase. “This amounts to a total of approximately 21 hours per week. During this time, we first prototype, which we have not done quite so much in the past, but which has helped greatly this year,” said Bobby Jones, Junior Level Project Manager. “We built working prototypes of several parts of the robot at the shop out of metal, wood and other parts. This helped us determine what would be best for the design. After this, we began on building the robot. This started with assembling the pre-fabricated frame we receive every year as a part of our fee for entering competitions. This frame is the only part of the robot that is pre-built for us; the rest we make ourselves out of various pieces of metal and other parts such as wheels, motors, and gearboxes,” explained Jones. “To do this, we typically use various power tools for cutting and drilling holes in metal and nuts and bolts for assembling the final product.
After the frame was completed, we began working on the mechanisms to pick up and shoot the ball that is used in this year’s competition. Additionally, we wanted the robot to be under 1’4” in order to accomplish a secondary goal of the competition. This proved difficult, but not impossible. Once these were finished, we completed a few other things on the robot before giving it to the electrical team. The electrical team is responsible for the wiring of the robot that allows it to get power to all of its motors, sensors, and any other electrical components we might have, such as lights.” According to Jones, the electrical components are the most costly part of the process and wiring the robot does not take nearly as long as it does to build it. Programming is the next step once those two tasks are completed. “After the robot is fully wired, it is given to the programming team, who write the code for it to move and perform any other functions it might need to. They use a program called LabView, one of a few programs allowed,” said Jones.
“They work on this for awhile before it is actually tested on the robot, but there are always glitches and other small issues that must be fixed, so it is crucial that we leave them enough time to fix anything. We test the robot using elements of the competition field, such as goals and obstacles, that some of our members build out of wood. We typically test the robot and fix any issues it might have up until the stop date, which this year was February 23. Overall, building the robot is a very time-consuming but also enjoyable and educational endeavor.” The Robodogs participate in a series of fundraisers throughout the year to cover the expensive costs of the program. “One of our missions as a team is to better the community. Our bike ride fundraiser, the Roboride, allows us to encourage healthy living and make money to go towards our $17,000 budget. The Roboride will happen on October 8th this year, and we hope to continue to grow our largest fundraiser!” said Kaitlyn Malcom, business team leader. “We are even partnering up with the Chili Cook-Off this year and having a Chili Team during the RoboRide! Some of our other fundraisers include car washes, selling Jittery Joe’s coffee, and working at road races in the community. The Morgan County Robotics Team receives NO monetary support from the school system, so we have to raise it all ourselves. Team members go out into the community to ask for sponsorships and donations. We thank everyone who has helped us out in the past and encourage anyone interested to reach out to us.” The Robodogs will participate in the following events: Albany Qualifier on March 17-March 19, at the Albany Civic Center located at 100 W. Oglethorpe Blvd., Albany, GA. They will then head to the Kennesaw Qualifier on April 8-10, at Kennesaw State University’s Convocation Center located at 590 Cobb Avenue in Kennesaw, GA.
Finally, the Robodogs will hopefully make it to the State Championship Event on April 14-16 at the University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum located at 100 Smith Street, in Athens, GA. “I hope that anyone who is interested in Robotics and Engineering will come out, support our RoboDogs, and get involved with this wonderful program!” said Johnson. For more information, check out the RoboDogs’ Facebook Group for at www.facebook.com/FIRSTteam3600.