A crowd of green shirts gathered around a mass of metal and wheels early Saturday, March 17, feverishly checking wires and connections on a machine that looks like something that should be sitting next to C3PO in a "Star Wars" movie.
“Hey Uncle Ben,” Luke Skywalker might say. “Forget R2D2, let’s get the Nighthawk VII.”
The green shirts were worn by members of Hayfield Secondary School’s Robotics Club, the Nighthawk VII’s creators. The club was in their final minutes of preparation before their first match of the last day of the FIRST Robotics Chesapeake Regional competition at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
A voice came over the loudspeaker: “Attention in the pit, team 1446 is in need of a one and a half inch hose clamp. Thank you."
Hayfield team members barely noticed the voice as they took their final look over the Nighthawk. A few minutes later the same voice called Hayfield to queue up, and they brought their robot through the crowded pit to the ring for the first match of the day.
On Jan. 6, the rules of this year’s First Robotics Competition were released and by Feb. 20 the team had to have their robot built, programmed and ready to be shipped.
The game, “Rack and Roll,” is played by two teams — called alliances — of three robots each. “It’s not like BattleBots,” said Rishi Singh, programmer for the robot.
“Yeah,” said senior Austin Blanton. “There’s no rocket launchers.” Each team has to use their robot to place inner tubes on pegs at three different heights in the center of the ring. Extra points are awarded by having their robots elevated four or more inches off the ground at the end of the match.
The team worked with engineers from Night Vision labs at Fort Belvoir and parent mentors for the next few weeks building the new Nighthawk. By the end or February the robot was crated up and shipped off to Annapolis for the first competition. Everyone was happy to see the robot finished.
“It was really difficult and stressful,” Chaz Lazarlere said.
But when the weekend of March 16 finally arrived, the crew was off to Maryland to meet the Nighthawk again, nervous to see how it would stack up in competition.
BACK IN THE PIT, the Hayfield team placed the Nighthawk in line for the next match. Michael Strausser, Jared Price, Austin Blanton and Kevin Andrews stood by while the rest of the team watched from the stands. Hayfield was ranked 16th from Friday’s competition and needed to win the next two matches to break into the top eight for the finals rounds.
The bell rang for the match to begin and Strausser and Price stepped up to the controls. Hayfield led the red alliance to an early lead, and their teammate the Blue Charge from Middletown High in Delaware played defense to prevent their opponents from placing any tubes.
The Nighthawk placed another tube low, but the blue alliance reached them and played hard defense, pinning Hayfield against a peg. Strausser pulled back on the joysticks and broke free. One of the Nighthawk’s sides, still caught on the peg, deployed out into the field like a large plastic wing.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Price afterwards. “But one of the ramps lowered.”
Extending ramps that far outside of the alliance’s home area meant an automatic 10-point penalty. The match ended with Hayfield’s two tubes the only ones sitting on pegs: with the penalty, a 0-to-0 tie.
A rush of green shirts ushered the Nighthawk back to the pit to try to fix the malfunction before the next match. Despite their tie, they rose to 14th place.
Hayfield had even less luck in the next round versus an alliance that included the first-seeded team.
“We got the first ring on,” said Strausser. “The second ring we tried but couldn't get it on either time." The 31–2 loss put Hayfield back in 16th place.
After the seeding matches, the top eight teams lined up in the ring. Each of the top eight may choose two lower seeded teams to complete their team for the final rounds. Last year Hayfield stood in the fourth seed. Saturday, they waited in the stands, hoping their performance impressed one of the top eight enough to be picked.
With only three picks left to be made, the fourth seeded alliance asked Hayfield to join. A sigh went through the Hayfield audience as Austin Blanton crossed the ring and took the microphone, “Team 614 graciously accepts,” he said.
“I was kind of surprised,” Blanton said. “Up until that point I wasn't sure we were going to get picked."
The team, which included Langley’s Otto IV robot and Counterstrike, a robotics team from W.E.B. DuBois High School in Maryland, looked solid. "We ran in to some problems originally,” said Andrew Lycas from the Langley team. “But this morning we fixed everything and things have been going good.”
IN THE FIRST ROUND of the semifinals Hayfield’s alliance played the fifth seeded team and lost despite an effort for the extra ramp points at the end.
“One of our teammates who was supposed to score had trouble and came back on defense,” said Andrews. The problem was not with the Nighthawk, whose ramps deployed perfectly in their home zone, but with the other robots, which could not quite scale Hayfield’s ramps.
“Because that motor failed we weren't able to get up our alliance member's ramp,” said Lycas. “But we will be able to this time.”
As the second round of the semifinals began the Nighthawk quickly grabbed a tube and headed toward the scoring pegs.
The other alliance’s dogged defense prevented Hayfield’s team from placing any tubes for the entire two-minute match, and as the robots went back to their home zones in the final seconds, the other alliance’s robot drove up onto a ramp, giving them the points to bump Hayfield out of the tournament.
Hayfield ended the last day of the Chesapeake Regional Competition in 16th place, and everyone was contented with their performance. As the Chesapeake tournament wrapped-up — won by the first-seeded alliance from New Jersey — the Hayfield team crated the Nighthawk VII and prepared to send it off to Georgia.
The competition everyone is looking forward to will be in Atlanta this April, at the FIRST Robotics National Competition. Hayfield has already been invited because of the team's performance last year.
“It’s all about seeing the light bulbs go on,” said Dalton Dawkins, an engineer mentor for the team. “Seeing these kids think about it and go, ‘I get it,’ it’s really good.”