OA/BC-IG Robotics Team

OA/BC-IG Robotics Team

My brother Jeff was a computer geek long before the term was a popular expression. He’d use words like UNIX, Basic, and Cobal as whimsically as a base poet uses rhyme. When he’d visit from his Arizona home, I’d be crass enough to ask him to use his ‘vacation’ to work on my Wi-Fi set-up or computer’s security.

For no more than a few cups of Kona coffee, he’d spread pixie dust around and – like magic – my computer worked like a charm. I am fortunate that he was as kind with his talent as I was insensitive.

It wasn’t until I saw that OA/BC-IG’s robotics team earned a birth to state competition that I wanted to know more about the magic that propels such creativity. Juniors Amanda Gunderson and Trey Rohlk, along with freshman Emma Endrulat comprise ‘Team Overload’, a mixture of talents that has led this team through 12 competitions to this weekend’s state-level competition in Coralville, Iowa.

While some might think that this is just about design, construction, operation, and application of robots, this year’s competition is about rescuing zip liners, clearing a field of debris, and climbing mountains. The scenario involves zip-liners in a dangerous 12’ x 12’ area with two mountains, a terrain where only the most aptly designed robot can succeed.

Team Overload has proved exceptional in this regard, each member adding to the project his or her flair for talent. “I have always liked building things,” stated Gunderson. “Even more I like the teamwork aspect of the competition; we all get to participate. There have been days when the janitors have had to kick us out of the school building, because we’ve worked so late.”

Freshman Endrulat said that she was adopted by the club. “I’m social. I like going up to other teams and seeing what they’ve come up with,” said Endrulat. “I was pretty much asked to join because I like talking to and meeting new people!” Endrulat’s friendly persona allows Team Overload to form alliances with other teams; a healthy alliance means additional points beyond the available 65 that an individual team can earn.

Rohlk, like my brother, is a different cat entirely from his teammates: he’s a programmer. With these crazy zip liners, he’s had to figure out how much debris he can clear and how many zip liners he can save by writing a program that will allow their robot to operate autonomously for 30 seconds.

Autonomously? Yes… to ‘see’ objects, react to distances, and act as a life-saver on its own accord. “I’ve got about 80 to 100 hours of java code worked into this project,” said Rohlk. “I’ve made tweaks to the program throughout all the competitions. It’s pretty satisfying to see the improvements. The toughest parts have been the autonomous code changes, especially to have the robot arrive at the perfect spot to get the zip liners to safety – all on its own.”

At the end of the autonomous period, the team has two minutes when the group manually controls their robot. Endrulat starts and stops the robot with an Android smart phone, the robot’s operating platform. Rohlk uses a joystick to move the arm to pick up the debris and zip liners. Gunderson mobilizes the unit’s wheels with another controller when the time is right. The team has all the appearances of a well-oiled machine.

At their February 13th performance at Western Iowa Technical Iowa Community College, Team Overload earned a state competition birth despite server and connection issues.

But obstacles didn’t always have to do with programming or Wi-Fi connection. Along their route to success, the robot’s wheels needed to be changed out for ones without enough grip to climb the mountains. In addition, the robotic arm was upgraded from a single to dual pivot model to help inch its way up the mountain; this design change also gave it the ability to place two people in the rescue basket and release two zip-liners at a time.

“We’ve been fortunate to have grants to run this program,” stated robotics’ coach Susan Maass. “This year, we earned a grant of $1500 toward the construction of the basic robot and $400 for the expensive Android platform system. Next year, those grants are gone, and we’ll be self-sustaining.”

Maass asks that anyone interested in donating to the robotics program contact Pat Miller at the high school (364-3371).

“They engage in problem solving and computer skills,” continued Maass, “and the scenarios have made it so kids have to communicate with each other. The students get out of it what they put into it. For the four years we’ve been competing, I’ve continually been impressed with the level of energy our kids give to this learning opportunity.”

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