In a spacious, sun-lit workshop at Hill Regional Career High School, the robot CRASH VII — an acronym for Career Robots Are So Hot — is on the loose. It can run, turn, grab objects and even transform itself into a ramp.
The product of six weeks of toil, CRASH VII won first place for Career High’s 30-member robotics team among over 40 teams in the regional competition of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. The competition, held in Hartford in March, qualifies the students for their first-ever shot at competing among more than 1300 teams at the FIRST National Championship — if they can raise the $2,000 they still need to go.
“We were thrilled about the finish,” said Daniel Boyd, co-captain of the squad and a senior at Career High. “We started off from the basement of our school, and after years of dedication, we’ve risen to the top.”
The team, an after-school program supported by Yale and United Illuminating Co., has come a long way. It began seven years ago with the help of retired engineers Jim Crowe and John Buffa of United Illuminating, placing 735 of 750 teams in its first competition.
“Over the years, they have really developed their skills and student interest,” said Claudia Merson, the director of public school partnerships at Yale, who collaborates with Career High to help fund the Robosquad. “To come in first is a real accomplishment.”
Team coordinator Ernest Smoker said the Robosquad is unique among most competitive robotics teams, many of which have annual budgets of between $50,000 and $75,000 and armies of up to 20 engineers and mentors who do much of the thinking and grunt work for students. Career High’s squad operates on a budget of $6,000, he said, and has just two official technical mentors for the team: himself and Yale chemistry professor David Johnson. As a result, students are heavily involved in the robot’s design and construction, Smoker said.
“I think our success is a double success, considering we did the work for it,” said Mohamed Badawi, co-captain of the team.
Boyd said the squad’s limited resources actually provided the basis for its winning strategy by improving students’ efficiency and forcing them to focus on the basics. The strategy going into Regionals, Smoker said, was based on the “KISS principle”: Keep it simple, stupid. This approach reduces the chance of problems and malfunctioning parts during competitions, he said.
“We had to start to start cutting back on capabilities,” Boyd said. “You can have too many ideas. It worked for us to focus on one main idea and make sure we were the best at that one particular thing.”
This year’s challenge, called Rack ‘N’ Roll, required robots to hang inflatable tubes on an eight-sided, spider-like contraption. CRASH VII was built as a defensive rather than an offensive robot, as its mission was to prevent other robots from completing the task. It sports 13 inch-high ramps designed to encourage other robots to climb on top of it — the feature that gained the team the majority of its points at Regionals, Smoker said. CRASH VII stores 50 lines of operating code and runs both on remote control and by itself.
The Robosquad’s members participate in brainstorming, building, web design, graphics and advertising. It roster of about 30 students includes several girls and students of all racial backgrounds, Smoker said.
“We have a very diverse team,” he said. “We’re pulling from the cream of the crop of the school, not just academically but in other areas of talent as well … I’m always impressed with how dedicated [the members] are.”
The team meets twice a week after school and on weekends during the school year to brainstorm and build. Charles Iagrossi, co-captain and three-year member of the team, said he dedicates an average of 20 hours per week to the squad, often spending his entire Saturday in the building studio.
Part of the appeal, Smoker said, is that the team brings together high school students with an interest in “building something with their hands,” engaging them in a constructive hobby. Boyd added that many students first joined the team because “it gave them something to do after school.”
“Since I was a small kid, I’d open up electronics and computers and break stuff in the house,” Bawadi said. “I liked to see how things work. It really feels good to put things together — and at the end, you’ve built something.”
Iagrossi said it was his interest in electrical engineering that first got him excited about joining the squad. The hands-on experience of building robots has only strengthened his desire to become an engineer, he said.
“I know that this is what I really want to do,” Iagrossi said. “My favorite part of the process is watching it grow from one piece of metal to a full, functional robot.”
In addition to first place, the Robosquad was awarded the Daimler Chrysler Team Spirit Award at the Regional competition in recognition of its approach to team- and community-building. Smoker said the squad has its sights set on the Chairman’s Award, the most prestigious prize awarded at FIRST that is given to the team that best exemplifies the competition’s spirit and mission.
The team will attend the FIRST Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta from April 14 to 16, provided they can raise the remaining $2,000 in time. Merson said she is trying to raise awareness of the team’s story to encourage donations from businesses and private contributors.