High school teams gather in Las Vegas for raucous robotics competition

Getting a robot to kick a soccer ball into a net is a lot more complicated than it sounds, especially if the robot must be assembled in just six weeks and operated from afar with videogame-style controls.

Costumed high school teams — with some dressed as gladiators and others looking like 1980s punk rockers with spiked mohawk hairdos — competed in a frenzied atmosphere that’s a strange hybrid between a March Madness basketball game, a Star Trek convention and a NASCAR race with its own pit row.

The event is formally known as FIRST Robotics, for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. But it’s not “first” because it’s in its sixth year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and 18th year over all.

Forty-eight teams, including 10 teams from Clark County and some from as far away as Brunssum, Netherlands, and Wiesbaden, Germany, unleashed their six-wheeled robots into soccer-style matches at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday.

Teams advance in the tournament by scoring the most soccer goals, but extra points are also awarded for climbing a tower or atop another robot.

Today’s finale will determine which team goes onto the final rounds of competition in Atlanta in two weeks.

One high school team from North Brunswick, N.J., was literally blowing away the competition Friday with a secret weapon of model airplane propellers. They create a vortex to suck in the ball. A mechanical spring then shoots the ball toward the goal.

“It’s very successful because many teams have problems manipulating the ball,” said Howard Cohen, 17, from New Jersey. “Instead of grabbing the ball, they will try to ram into it. … We just have to go near it and it will suck right in.”

Cohen then credited “Hooke’s Law” for his robot’s shooting accuracy. This is the principle in physics that describes motion of a load propelled from a spring.

“I take physics,” said Cohen before correcting himself. “(Hooke’s Law) is in (advanced placement) physics. I haven’t taken it yet.”

Cohen said the biggest misconception is that a computer magically designs the robot for the teens. In reality, a team must use strategy and imagination to come up with a winning edge and comply with the 140 rules and design specifications.

Cliff Dey, an engineer for Johnson & Johnson and adviser to the New Jersey team, said, “I love working with the kids. It’s really satisfying to see a kid not knowing what he wants to do … and then (decides to) become an engineer.”

Dey said teens seem to have grasp for robotics from their exposure to personal computers and video games.

“When you can channel that energy, all of sudden you have the future of engineering,” he said.

One of local history’s proudest engineering accomplishments — the Hoover Dam — is the inspiration for the team from Boulder City High School. They call themselves the “High Scalers” and wear bright yellow in recognition of construction workers, said team member Lexi Lagan, 17.

She is the only female on her team.

“There’s a stereotype this is a boys’ sport,” said Lagan, but was encouraged to see some all-girls teams, such as the team fielded by Notre Dame High School, all girls’ school in San Jose, Calif.

As a relatively small school with 600 students, Boulder does not offer an “Introduction to Robotics” course like Cimarron-Memorial High School, the 2007 world champions of FIRST Robotics.

All schools face the challenge of raising tens of thousands of dollars to build their robots. “It’s a pretty expensive hobby,” said Jacob Mauro, 15, a sophomore at Cimarron-Memorial.

Sponsors’ names are printed on the robots like the advertising on NASCAR cars, but Mauro said they also do a lot of personal fundraising, such as selling $1 root beer floats outside of supermarkets.

Such fundraising might seem quaint considering how robotics is changing industry.

Dey, the Johnson & Johnson engineer, noted that robotics is used for suturing in surgery and is transforming orthopedic medicine.

“We already have the capability to grow skin on mechanical devices. When they do hip and knee replacements, they actually re-grow the skin and the muscles,” Dey said.

Dey did not think it was such a stupid question to wonder whether technology will eventually create the robots seen in popular science fiction such as the Cylons of “Battlestar Galactica.”

“It’s closer than you think,” he said. “We haven’t had true artificial intelligence, but we are getting closer. You can program a robot to make decisions but not to learn from its mistakes. We’re not quite there yet.”

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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