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Waterford students compete in international robotics competition
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Waterford School is home to many high school teams and clubs, but few have the privilege to compete in an international competition like the Raven's Robotics Team.

With the help of their homemade robot "Watty," the team became top ranked at FIRST Robotic's Las Vegas Regional competition. The win gives the group a spot at the international championship being held in St. Louis, Missouri which runs April 24 through 27.

The team owes their big win to hours of hard work, determination to learn more and improve their creations. The competitions are full of fun and prizes, but they also open up career-launching opportunities to the students. The team itself grows their already budding interest in science and engineering, as well as teaching valuable communication skills.

The initiative put in by the students is exceptional compared to the typical after-school program.

"It's basically the equivalent of a full-time job," said Chance Beagley, a senior at Waterford and team captain. "We've put hundreds of hours into this thing."

The team is full of students with a variety of skills that go toward building the robot. While different members have their strengths, the Ravens make sure every member has an understanding of all aspects of robot building.

Knowledge in mechanics, physics, trigonometry, engineering, computer programming and even 3D modeling are needed to make a robot.

"These groups are by far the best STEM activities you can be a part of," said Todd Winters, director of admissions at Waterford, referring to curriculums that focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

Along with being on the team, a robotics course is required to be taken where students learn the basics of making their own "Johnny 5."

Watty, the Frisbee-throwing robot, was built only a few months prior to their first competition in late March at Utah's regional contest. The international robotics league, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) began its season in January. Teams have six weeks to build their robot and must follow strict guidelines in order to qualify for competition.

The league's challenge varies from year to year and this season's game is called Ultimate Ascent. Three teams are grouped together to form "alliances." Teamwork is essential, not only within individual groups, but also among the alliances.

It's three versus three as the goal is for robots to shoot Frisbees into different goals, varying in size, height from the ground and point value. They must do this while avoiding the other team's robots. Bonus points can be collected by climbing a 26-foot-tall pyramid structure; the higher they climb, the more points are given. This is the riskiest part of the game as a robot can fall and break, knocking it out of the competition.

The Ravens worked long days and nights to perfect Watty, some even sacrificing their Spring Break. All their work was reflected on to Watty's performance at the competition; from the mechanism that tossed the Frisbees, to the motors and gears that helped it climb the pyramid.

Whether it's to make quick repairs, load the robot with Frisbees, or to be the pilot, everyone on the team has a job to do during the game.

Piloting Watty takes lots of practice as well as seamless programming, said Ayana Beatty, a junior. The robot is piloted using a wireless Playstation controller, so being a gamer doesn't hurt either.

The Ravens swept the competition at the Utah Regionals, but in Las Vegas they were up against world-class teams from the most prestigious tech schools.

Seeing schools from overseas wheel out complex machines was intimidating, said George Matus, a freshman. Things looked bad when Watty malfunctioned during one of its first matches.

Only after one loss they were able to figure out what went wrong and made the proper adjustments.

The Ravens went on to win the rest of their matches and became the lead team of their alliance, allowing them to choose their partner schools.

"We met with a lot of other teams and spoke to so many people," Matus said. It required a good amount of scouting out other groups that would be easy to work with and whose robot showed potential.

Waterford teamed up with D'Penguineers of Dos Pueblos, California and Vikings Robotics of Huntington Beach, California, not only winning every elimination match, but being ranked as number one at the competition.

Jacob Fishman, a freshman, noticed how many of the more complex robots broke down more, whereas they tried to keep Watty as simple as possible.

"We only broke down once [during the competition], which is almost unheard of," Fishman said.

Watty impressed judges so much that the team received the Motorola Quality Award for their robust and efficient design.

"We're focused on doing fewer things and doing them well," Beagley said regarding the robots simpler design compared to their competitors.

Whenever they build a new creation including Watty, the team sticks to five basic principles: "Robust," "Redundant," "Repairable," "Ready," and "Ravenous."

Fishman said by following these bullet points, it has allowed the group to build the better robot. Not only do these principles apply to their robot, but to them as a team.

"Our first objective is to learn," Fishman said. "Everyone learns the basics and sooner or later has a hand in making the robot."

On a typical team meet-up after school, you can see the members tinkering with homemade gadgets, fine-tuning their competitive robot and training for matches with their practice robot all the while chatting about what can be done better, always teaching the newer members along the way.

Sometimes the close-knit group can be seen on campus goofing around with basketball-chucking droids and remote-control helicopters. They took over a good portion of the assembly auditorium with their practice courses and training robots.

What makes their coach and science teacher, James Harris, proud is the initiative put in by the team members and the fact that they are learning practical skills for the future. Nearly everyone on the team looks forward to a future in robotics, engineering and related fields.

Opportunities are not in short supply for students in successful teams, in fact many gravitate toward them.

Beagley graduates at the end of spring and is already weighing offers from the top engineering and technical schools in the country.

"There are so many careers that this can open up for you," Beagley said. "Companies and schools know this program and scout out talent."

Beagley said he is meeting with different colleges at the championship in St. Louis.

The Ravens and Watty are ready for the challenges that lies ahead in the championship. Win or lose, the team plans on continuing to learn and looking forward to the future of their careers and robotics.

closeup@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribSouth

FIRST Robotics • Students must design robots to shoot Frisbees, climb tower.
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