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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High students Will Orton, 16, left, and David Elliott, 16, assemble transmissions as part of the early process of building a robot for their team, Red Rock Robotics. Hunter High, in West Valley City, hosted an event this month for more than a dozen teams planning to join the competition. FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology.
Hunter High building bots for competition
Robotics » Students must assemble a robot that can shoot hoops.
First Published Jan 25 2012 05:40 pm • Last Updated Jan 26 2012 09:26 am

West Valley City • Last year, Hunter High’s Robotics Club smoked the competition.

This year, it’s hoping for a little better performance.

At a glance

I, robot

Hunter High is preparing for the FIRST Robotic Competition, a tech event it has entered for three straight years.

Schools from across the nation build 120-pound robots to compete in a yearly challenge. This year’s task is a basketball-themed game, involving Nerf balls and hoops.

The Maverik Center will host as many as 50 teams at a FIRST regional competition March 15-17.

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Students have begun building their entry for the 21st annual FIRST Robotics Competition — a tech event Hunter has participated in for three consecutive years.

After literally blowing smoke last year when metal shavings slipped into a motor, filling the Jon M. Huntsman Center with a cloud of white smoke, the Wolverines are using last year’s malfunctions as this year’s motivation.

"It failed spectacularly," said Scott Watson, a Hunter electronics instructor and project adviser. "We’ll be sure that won’t happen this year."

Hunter’s will be one of approximately 6,000 entries in this year’s competition, which claims to be "the varsity sport for the mind." As many as 50 teams will test their robots in a regional competition at the Maverik Center in March.

This year’s "game" is titled Rebound Rumble and requires the 120-pound robots to launch Nerf-type basketballs through several hoops surrounding the court.

Teams were given unassembled robotic kits in early January. They have six weeks to assemble the hardware and design the software. The robots then are packaged and shipped away, only to be reunited with teams on the first day of competition.

Senior Ryan Fenner said the biggest challenge will be devising the mechanics to allow the robot to "rebound" balls off the ground and launch them at the hoops.

"Last year, we had to pick up things," said Fenner, who participated last year. "We used an arm. But we are trying to stay away from arms because there are a lot of complications with all the different motors and getting them to function right."

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The students’ plan was to have the robot driving by the end of the first week, then spend two weeks focusing on picking up and shooting balls. The final three weeks will be spent honing the shooting accuracy, using either two spinning wheels or a conveyor belt.

"Everyone’s working together," senior Mike Alexander said. "We’re getting the basic frames up."

Students receive help from teachers and professionals. They also are being mentored by engineers from Hill Air Force Base.

"That’s one of the best parts of the program," Watson said. "Students aren’t doing it entirely on their own. They get professional engineers to come work with them."

Watson said teams will spend anywhere from $5,000 to $8,500 on parts and materials. Hunter’s team is sponsored by satellite communications company SRT and Patent Law Works, and also receives help from local businesses to offset the cost.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is expected to include teams from nine states. Other Utah schools — such Skyline, West and Logan’s InTech Collegiate High — also are expected to compete.

Although the event is competition, with top teams advancing to the FIRST Championship in St. Louis in April, Watson said teams and organizers promote and practice "gracious professionalism."

"At last year’s regional, Cyprus High School didn’t realize how difficult it was and didn’t ask for help," Watson said. "They sent a robot that was unassembled. On the first day of the regional, every team sent one or two people over to help them. Four hours later, they had their robot together and working, and it made it to the third round of eliminations.

"This program is just amazing for that. I wouldn’t put so much time into it if I wasn’t impressed by what they are doing."

This year, Hunter’s team consists of eight students. Watson expects that number to grow to about 20 as the project moves along.

Sophomore Alex Ford, the "newbie" of the group, said he joined because he is considering a career as a robotic engineer.

"Robots are amazing," Ford said. "If you get past all the technical side of it, you can build something really cool."

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