Several West Hartford teams – including the combined Conard/Hall team Athena’s Warriors, participated in the deep space-themed FIRST Robotics Competition.
By Ted Glanzer
At first glance, a high school team from West Hartford sporting purple as its color may seem a bit incongruous for a town known for its deep loyalties to blue or red, with some green sprinkled in for good measure.
But the robotics team Athena’s Warriors is an amalgam of Conard red and Hall blue (with some Newington students, too), hence purple – what you get when you mix the two. And there was no time or space for the traditional school rivalries, as the team competed at the FIRST Robotics Competition for the New England/Hartford District at Hartford Public High School April 6 and 7.
“It’s a pretty interesting mix,” Hall junior Julian Baker, a team member for the past four years, agreed.
Further adding to the team’s legacy of inclusivity, Athena’s Warriors started as an all-female team about a decade ago, according to member Paige Patz of Newington.
“We adopted the name Athena because she is the goddess of wisdom and strategy,” she said. “After three years we became co-ed, but we kept the name.”
The team, one of 39 at the event, fared well at the competition, the theme of which was “Destination: Deep Space,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.
In early January, according to Executive Director Bruce Linton, teams were given a unique set of instructions and worked with mentors to build a 120-pound robot in six weeks. The teams can enter two district events and earn ranking points. The top 64 teams get invited to the district championship at WPI, and half of those teams enter the world championship in Detroit two weeks later.
Linton said the event is very much collaborative-based, with teams playing in alliances on the field.
There are three robots per team, with six robots on the field, Linton said, with the robots tasked with picking up “samples” on the fictional planet Primus in just two and a half minutes. “Unpredictable terrain and weather patterns make remote robot operation essential to their mission on the planet,” a game program says. For 15 seconds, a sandstorm limits driver visibility, so robots must either follow pre-programmed instructions or are operated by their human drivers via video from the robot, Linton said.
This year, according to Linton, an emphasis was placed on defense, meaning robots that couldn’t necessarily pick up objects and place them in the rockets could also help their teams by obstructing their opponents from accomplishing their tasks. Alliances scored points by preparing rockets and cargo shops with hatch panels, loading cago pods onto the ships and cargo ships, and returning the robot safely to the alliance’s habitiat. The teams that scored the most points at the end won.
At Athena’s Warriors’ pit, Baker said things were going well during the first day of the two-day competition, explaining this year’s robot was more intricate than in years past.
“This is the first year we’ve done an elevator,” he said. “We don’t have any moving extensions, which was a really big challenge. It’s pretty satisfying that we have it done. I’ve never done anything close to this height. Every year for the past four years our robot has been not very tall. This year we are at the build limit. It can go pretty high up. It’s going pretty awesome. The first competition (earlier this year), we went through a lot of fishing line (for the elevator), then we switched over to kevlar and this is working really well.”
Baker said he couldn’t have imagined how much he has learned – including computers, coding, electrical, soldering – and how far he has come since he walked into his first robotics meeting as a King Philip eighth grader.
“I remember the first day walking in eighth grade, they were talking about pneumatics and I had no idea what it meant,” he said. “Everything was just mind blowing. After I got used to it, I got into it and it was awesome.”
Athena’s Warriors ranked 178th out of 202 New England teams at the end of the two competitions entered, including the one in Hartford, which means it didn’t qualify for the district championships. But it did win the prestigious entrepreneurship award, which, according to the FIRST website, “[c]elebrates the entrepreneurial spirit by recognizes a team that has developed a comprehensive business plan in order to define, manage, and achieve the team’s ongoing objectives.”
Northwest Catholic’s team – the Pride – placed 121st in New England, a solid showing made even more impressive considering it was the school’s first year participating in the robotics competition.
The team was created out of Francesca Discenza struggling with vectors in AP physics. After going to the teacher for extra help, Discenza had conversations with the teacher, who encouraged her to form a club, which led to applying for grants and writing letters requesting help to form the team, which sported 17 members in its rookie year.
“We got crazy sponsors this year,” team member Allison Tessman said.
The team couldn’t have gotten a better mentor for Destination: Deep Space than Capt. Daniel Burbank, who literally has been to space, several times on the space shuttle and has also been on the International Space Station.
“It’s been very inspiring,” Burbank said of the kids’ work. “They have been problem solving all this week and today; they were working on the robot. They were working on ideas they had, using a more robust system design to it.”
Burbank said the robot was a “two-trick pony,” serving as a ramp bot to help alliance team members climb up to the highest platform as well as play great defense. The team later installed two arms to enabled it to put in hatch panels on the first level of the rockets.
But there was more to the team – and all of the teams, really – than just the nuts and bolts robotics.
“Part of the team members did the engineering, design work, and coding,” he said, “but there also were team members doing all the things the team needs to do, like fundraising, marketing, coming up with a business plan. They learn it all. Ultimately it’s to solve a higher-level problem, a complicated problem, things we deal with in aerospace all the time.”
Burbank explained why the robotics competition was invaluable.
“The vast majority of the last half century, astronauts didn’t have to roll up their sleeves to do hands-on tech work these kids are doing,” he said, noting astronauts went up into space in capsules or the space shuttle, came back, and gave the equipment back to the people who built it. “We could patch things up enough to bring it home. Now we have a million pounds of space station up there for the past 20 plus years. It’s never coming back to the repair shop. The kind of repairs, the things you have to do, just because you are an astronaut who is a mechanical engineer, doesn’t mean you have the hands-on technical skills to do sophisticated repairs on your space suit or the technical repairs on a water processor, the oxygen generator.
“The kinds of things the kids do here, they are conceptualizing, they have a problem set, they have to do the design, the build, the prototyping. They’ll find out there are problems with it, they will go back and forth. It’s hands on hard work, doing the exact kind of thing astronauts of the future need to do. This is the perfect organization to give kids the practical experience.
It’s a unique opportunity at a relatively young age to learn the kinds of things design engineers, technicians and mechanics don’t learn until many, many years later.”
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!