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Berkshire Robotics Team Programmed For World Championships

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The Higgs Bot of Mt. Everett Regional High School robotics team

Next month, a dozen students from Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, Massachusetts will be competing in a robotics world championship in St. Louis. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Jim Levulis met the team members, including the battery powered ones.Say hello to the Higgs Bot. It takes its name from its team, the Higgs Bots, which borrowed it from the Higgs boson – an elementary particle. Known as Team 3085 within the First Tech Challenge circle, the group has captured three straight state titles and is heading to its first world championships. Teacher Chris Thompson is a team mentor.

“It’s a little like Nascar, is what we try to tell people,” Thompson said. “People are maybe more familiar with the idea that you’re running your car like crazy in a Nascar race and the wheels go flat, engines blow, you have to refuel or whatever you come into pit and do those things. Well it’s the same thing here at robotics competition. We’re out there competing against other teams, things can break down or batteries need to be recharged so there actually is an area called the pit. We can take the robot back to the pit in between competition rounds and work on it.”

The competition requires teams to design, build and maneuver a robot that can pick up items like blocks or rings within a boxed-in field of play and drop them into tubes for points. This year’s selection: wiffle balls.

The Higgs Bot’s solution is a mechanical arm called the Dreamcatcher — it resembles the Native American object as it locks in a ball after the arm drops down on it.

The Dreamcatcher then loads the balls into a plastic tube hopper, which can be lifted four feet into the air to drop the balls into a goal. The whole production compacts into an 18-by-18-by-18-inch cube. During competition the robot is operated by two people using Xbox or Playstation controllers.

One person drives, the other operates the lifts and arms.

“We’ve been practicing together for a long time, myself and the other driver Jake,” said driver Kosta Casivant, a senior.  “So we kind of have a rough idea of what we’re supposed to be doing. I’m controlling where the robot is exactly on the field. He’s controlling the Dreamcatcher and the lift up and down. So if I’m going to a section with balls in the corner he knows to start picking them up and I know to position in the right area.”

Even after coming in 10th at the East Super Regional, Casivant and mentor Paul O’Brien are still looking to improve the robot’s performance.

“One of the issues we have this bot is the current draw while the motors are running,” O’Brien explained. “So you’re eliminating one of the other motors and putting this motor in place?”

“Yes,” replies Casivant.

During the first part of the 2 and a half minute rounds, the robots run without being controlled. They are pre-programmed to identify the goals with the hope of scoring points with pre-loaded wiffle balls. Since some of the goals can be randomly positioned, the Higgs Bot has gyro, infrared and sonar sensors programmed by team members Max Lowenstein and Alex Dunne.

“There are so many variables,” explained driver Jake Christinat. “Static electric, the grip on the court, whether they’ve sprayed it down with an anti-static or how centered your wheels are. It’s challenging when you don’t use the sensors. We’re lucky to have Max and Alex help us do that because if we didn’t it would be a train wreck.”

Two randomly selected teams work together in an alliance meaning there are four robots on the field at one time trying to score the most points. While Mt. Everett has about a dozen team members, mentor Chris Thompson says larger districts can have eight robotics teams competing to represent their school.

“We have a group of kids that have the right set of skills,” Thompson said. “You need kids that can design, build, program and drive. We seem to have a kid that fits each of those components.”

With design work starting in September and the first competition the following spring, Thompson says it’s a sight to watch the team and the robot come together.

“You can go back to day one or two and look at the drawings and concepts we had and look at some pictures of the robot when it was first being built,” Thompson said. “It’s almost like a child in a way. These little baby pictures and now it’s a full-fledged adult. When you watch it run around and the kids are doing remote control it takes on a life of its own and you start seeing it doing all the things you imagined it doing.” 

More than 120 teams from China, Europe and across North America will compete in the world championships April 22-25.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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