BY CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
What do Michael Jordan and a robot built by Pulaski County School District students have in common?
Both are top-notch basketball players that have come out of retirement for one more shot at glory.
The Southwestern High School Robotics Team competed in an invitational competition in Indianapolis last weekend showcasing a hoops-shooting robot that students at the school constructed themselves last school year.
Called the CAGE Match at Southport (Ind.) High School — that stands for “Cards and Goats Exhibition,” as in the Southport CyberCards and Warren Robotics Digital Goats, not actual animals — the event provided one more opportunity for the local team of mechanically-inclined students (known as Team 3259) to drag out an old friend and put him to work.
The result? Team 3259 won the competition, going up against a field of 31 others from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky.
The robot was a hit back in March at the Smoky Mountains Regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition in Knoxville, Tenn. The team did well enough to move on to the international championship round in St. Louis in April, but left there without the best of tastes in their collective mouth.
“We ended up 68 out of 400 (at internationals),” said Roger Riquelme, a Southwestern teacher who helps head up the program. “It was not as good as we were hoping. Judging from how we were performing and how we performed at the regional level, we should have been much higher.
“We kind of expected more out of ourselves,” he added, noting that technical difficulties with a faulty radio relay prevented them from controlling the robot effectively in St. Louis.
“It’s like a router you might get from Wal-Mart or Office Depot, it just sends signals back and forth,” said Riquelme. “When it’s working, it’s a relatively minor piece, but when it’s not working, it’s a major problem. It would drop signals several times during a match; we ended up having to reboot the robot several times.”
A number of the students on that team have since graduated, and soon the current team will start work on another robot, built to perform different tasks.
However, when the opportunity to compete in another competition that would allow them to use the robot they’d already built came up, the students jumped at the task — a shot at redemption.
“Everyone was interested in doing it,” said Riquelme. “We repaired the robot and raised a little money to make it over there.”
The kids raised about $500 to help cover registration and lodging costs; the school system kicked in the travel money, an act for which Riquelme expressed great appreciation.
Indiana schools tend to have strong robotics programs, observed Riquelme, so the competition at Southport would have been fierce. Southwestern’s was one of the only Kentucky teams in attendance.
These aren’t the kind of robots you might be used to seeing in old sci-fi movies, but rather controllable devices capable of performing specific functions.
There are two competitive aspects in which the robots perform. One is the basketball-like game, in which the robots shoot balls into hoops to score points. There are two competing “alliances,” made of robots from three different teams apiece, and points may be scored for cooperation between teams within these alliances.
A typical match lasts two minutes and 15 seconds. The higher the hoop, the more points a basket is worth.
“On the front of the robot is a four-foot-tall shooting mechanism that picks balls off the ground,” said Riquelme. “They roll up a big roller, and shoot into the air, into the hoop to score. (The robot) is on a base with a four-wheel drive train that gets us where we need to go.”
Not every year of the robotics competition revolves around basketball-like activity, but there is another aspect to the competition — balancing on a bridge that swings back and forth. Baskets score less points, but are easier to execute. The bridge is worth more points, but it’s harder and riskier. If the robot falls over, you’re out for the rest of the match.
“We got to take a lot of the new members who had never been to this competition before up to Indianapolis and experience it for the first time,” said Riquelme. “Once we got the radio working, we were much more competitive than we were at internationals.”
And that paid off with a big — and very satisfying — win. One with a bit of a strategy change to boot.
“In the past, we played a bigger defensive role,” said Riquelme. “In this competition, we played a lot of offense. I think we hit eight or nine out of 10 shots.”
Also, “normally I coach the students on the field,” he added, “but at this competition, I let some of the student leaders coach the other students.”
The success is paying off in popularity. Riquelme said the team may have as many as 30 new students, and 50 total, though those numbers could be tried depending on how many students maintain interest throughout the school year. The next robot probably won’t shoot basketballs, though Riquelme says he hopes whatever the task is next year, it’s just as enjoyable.
“When they do the sports games, those always come off very well,” he said. “Occasionally, they’ll do something weird (as far as a theme for all teams to compete in), and harder to relate to. It’s fun, but not as fun as basketball, soccer or football.”
What definitely won’t be fun is finally saying goodbye to the hoops-shooting robot once in for all — though at least it got to go out on top.
“A lot of (the students) were very attached to it,” said Riquelme. “We’re probably going to have to strip some of the parts (for a new robot). They’re not too excited about that, but we don’t have too much money to work with right now. Even some of the new members aren’t too happy about it.”
At least, however, they’ll be able to build their own memories — literally.