Winters robotics team fights their way to the top of the pack

The Winters High School robotics team competed in a tournament over the weekend. They used carefully calculated strategies to fight their way to the semifinals.
Photo by Emma Johnson

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Watching a robotics match is a little like trying to follow a basketball free throw competition taking place between two rugby scrums while a ping-pong match goes on at either end. During each three minute match at the Capital City Classic last weekend, six robots battled to lift cubes onto a tall scale in the center of the field, pile them on either side of two oversized sets of switches and feed cubes through slots in the barrier that separated the human competitors from the field. The field itself looks like a video game built in real life. The colors are bright, the designs are blocky and recognizable “power-up’ sounds and buzzers go off during the match. On the pitch everything is movement, crashes and pulsing LED lights. Behind the barrier, the students look focused and calm. They are playing to get highest score possible, and they have a very little time to do it. The Winters High School robotics team named themselves Kaprekar’s Constants, a play on their assigned number: 6174. The “drive team” on the field are a small fraction of the group. After they wheel the robot off to the pits, where hundreds of other teams are repairing from the last match or preparing for the next one, a dozen other Winters students stay in the bleachers. This is the logistics team. Each qualifying match pits two sets of randomly assigned team against each other. Three teams are assigned to the blue alliance, and three to the red. Without knowing which teams they will compete with or against, the logistics team has to figure out what each team can do. They start by going through the pits, stopping at each team to ask what their robot is capable of. Has the team programmed it to operate independently during the 30 second autonomous run time at the beginning of each match? Can it reach high enough to lift a cube onto the high scale? Is it able to travel all the way to the other side of the pitch? Self-reported answers are one thing, but the truth is another. Robots can break down on the field and codes can fail. That is why the students in the bleachers watch every match and take careful notes. They try to record every robot’s performance throughout the day, preparing for the possibility that they might end up as teammates or competitors later. “The logistics team has won us at least one match, and that hasn’t happened before,” robotics coach and high school teacher Mike Challender says. The data that they collected informed the drive team’s strategy. After a day of following matches, the team gathered to rewatch them onscreen. Like football coaches reviewing the game, the students analyzed what happened on the field. By the end of Saturday night, they had a strategy for Sunday. Looking at the footage and the data collected, the team knew that, both statistically and technologically, they were not going to beat the superior teams on offense. Instead, they planned to focus on defense, and negate as many of the other team’s points as possible. “This is a varsity sport for the mind,” Challendar says. The next morning the strategy didn’t go as planned. The reverse pulley system that elevates the cubes got snagged on another part of the machine. If they hadn’t broken mid-match, Challender is certain that the students’ strategy would have worked. The lost match bumped Winters all the way from seventh place to 12th. In the quarterfinals, the top eight teams are guaranteed a spot. The team worked quickly to rebuild the robot before their final qualifying match. While the matches continued in the gymnasium, the team tested and retested their elevator mechanism in the pit. In a quick series of matches, high ranking teams were defeated. Winters soundly won their final qualifying match, catapulting them from 12th place to sixth. They made it to quarterfinals, but they had no time to celebrate. The team rushed outside to an open picnic table to strategize. “This never happens!” Valeria Ceja said excitedly as the team rifled through the pages of notes they collected over the past two days. The top eight teams select the robots they want to join their alliance for the quarterfinals. Winters had to calculate how each robot had performed, which strengths would compliment their robot’s weaknesses and which teams would be picked before Winters took the floor. They only had a few minutes to complete the list before they had to rush back to the gymnasium. The selection process is kind of like picking kickball teams at recess, except there are eight captains, standing in front of hundreds of spectators, and each of them is frantically considering a dozen variables as the selection pool changes with each team picked. Students stood with laptops perched in the crooks of their arms as they calculated the best selection from the teams remaining. Winters was more low-tech. Ceja represented the team with a laminated piece of paper and a dry erase marker. She wiped each teams’ names away as they were chosen. The teams don’t get to return to pits between matches during the finals. They have to hope that their code is uncorrupted, that their robot doesn’t break down and that they have enough batteries charged to make it through each match. Out of hundreds of teams that competed at the Capital City Classic, Winters took fourth place. The relatively new robotics team took on established teams, teams from bigger schools, teams that had won world championships–and came out close to the top. ]]>

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