A pair of robotics teams from Eastern Jackson County, part of a winning alliance at last month's Greater Kansas City Regional and drawing on a few years of experience, are competing in the world championships that begin today in Houston.
The team from Career Technology Center at Fort Osage High School, which also includes students from Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove, has now advanced to worlds in all four years of existence. Meanwhile, the Blue Springs Robocats are heading back for the first time in several years.
The international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championships run through Saturday. About half of the world's competing teams will be in Houston, while the other international FIRST Championships are next week in Detroit.
“We're ready to compete with 407 other teams,” CTC Inspire coach Ginger McCabe said before giving her team some last-day instructions Monday afternoon. The team then loaded the practice robot and other supplies onto a trailer – the competition robot had been packed and shipped ahead as required – which would leave for Houston ahead of the team's bus.
CTC is competing with a little bit of heavy hearts, as assistant coach Phil Fleming died unexpectedly a couple weeks ago. He helped with the team's programming.
“The kids won the technical award (at regionals), and no doubt he was a big reason for that,” McCabe said.
The coach also credited help from Northrop Grumman and the KC STEM Alliance for CTC's success.
Fort Osage seniors Alex Hill and Lewis Chastain said it helped that the team had done another regional competition prior to the Greater KC at Rockhurst High School, as well as relying on experience from previous years. CTC Inspire (spelled with the mathematical symbol for “pi” in place of the letters) finished round-robin competition as the second seed and chose the Robocats to join their alliance after the quarterfinals when another allied robot broke down.
“We knew all the problems we had at the first competition,” Chastain said. “We clipped something and ripped the pneumatic cylinders off, so we moved those to the center.”
For this year's competitions, teams had to design a robot that could take both cylindrical plexiglass panels and rubber balls and either attach the velcroed panels to a three-sided tower or toss a ball into the tower.
“We have a chance to work out hardware problems,” said Hill, adding that the lift system also needed fixing. Blue Springs, she said, was a team they had identified as a possible allied bot.
“We have scouts on the team, checking and counting other teams, figuring out who would complement our robot well. We knew they had a good driver team.”
Like Chastain, Robocat team members said it takes a little luck to advance from regionals. The Blue Springs team also gelled this after many of them worked three years together.
“Our freshman year, we had a number of classmates interested in robotics,” Blue Springs senior Tim Moran said.
“We found our rhythm (this year),” South senior Elijah Wade said. “We've had a lot of experience driving, that helps especially for defense.
Whereas as the CTC team built a bot close to the 125-pound limit – one that has a low center of gravity and doesn't get pushed around much, Hill said – the Robocats built a lighter bot closer to 100 pounds, which isn't as draining on battery power.
“We were a first alternate, and they wanted a bot that would be a good defensive bot,” South senior Drew Childs said. “We were good at stopping at others.
“They always have awkward game pieces; it's always a really unique challenge.”
Robocats coach Shawn Heidie said it's been fun watching his senior-led team grow over the years.
“We're big on, this is for the kids – let them do the big work,” he said. “It amazes me, their perseverance.”