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On to States for Team Robowiz

Rocky Run students compete Sunday in FIRST Tech Challenge finals.

On Jan. 12 at UVA, Rocky Run Middle School’s Robowiz team was a finalist in three FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) categories and triumphed in one of them. And this Sunday, March 3, the team will participate in the state finals at VCU.

Comprising the team are eighth-graders Adarsh Kulkarni, Adithya Varadan, Akshay Balaji, Shomik Ghose and Jami Park; seventh-graders Nitya Agarwal and Vinh Nguyen; Rocky Run grad Abha Agarwal, now a Thomas Jefferson freshman; Longfellow Middle eighth-grader Neeraj Prasad and Fairfax High freshman Trisha Deshmukh. (Nitya and Abha are sisters).

“FTC focuses on the robotic aspect of technology,” said Akshay. “You’re given a new game each year to compete in. This year’s was Ring it Up; our robot had to place rings on a three-peg-by-three-peg rack in the center of a mat.”

So, said Shomik, “It was essentially 3D tic-tac-toe.”

“The majority of each round was remote-controlled,” said Abha. “So two team members with video-game controllers controlled the robot’s movements.”

Because the pegs are on three, different levels, said Adarsh, their robot was geared to score on all of them. “Four teams play at the same time,” he said. “And when you’re trying to put on your rings, other teams are trying to prevent you from doing so.”

“You form an alliance with another team, so it’s two teams against two teams,” added Shomik. “The winner is the one who earns the most points in 2 minutes, 30 seconds.”

“You can also get bonus points for scoring a tic-tac-toe,” said Jami. “And if your alliance teams pick up your robot, you’ll get points based on how many inches off the ground it is. There’s also an autonomous round where you don’t control the robot.”

“You’re running a program on the robot,” said Abha. “And there’s an autonomous ring that lets you override someone else’s peg, but only one time.”

Besides that, said Nitya, “There are weighted rings and, if you can lift up one of them and take it to a corner peg, you’ll get bonus points.”

Abha said the team started meeting last June and held four FTC workshops. “We met in the library and taught other FLL [FIRST Lego League] teams what we knew,” she said. “About 150 kids came, so we did community outreach. And there are another 150 on a waiting list, so we plan to continue our outreach after our competition.”

“We also hosted a junior FLL tournament for K-third-graders, where they built their own design and won awards,” said Nitya. “The community outreach was part of our competition, and so were the workshops.”

In addition, said Abha, “We also organized an FLL tournament at GMU and were the referees, judges, scorekeepers and Web masters.”

Akshay said their robot is made of aluminum pieces from a kit they ordered online from TETRIX by Pitsco. “This robot is expensive, so we also discussed marketing and came up with a plan to contact companies for sponsorships,” said Jami. As a result, sponsors and grants helped the students with the cost of building materials and software.

They also did fundraising. “We sold FIRST, e-watt lightbulbs,” said Jami. “They’re energy-efficient, green and long-lasting, and we sold them at the Rocky Run school fair. And for marketing, we also set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and a Web site, www.teamrobowiz.us.” (Team 6029).

Then, said Nitya, “We designed everything on the computer using SolidWorks. We decided how high our robot would be and then we built it with the TETRIX pieces. Counting the pieces, wires, screws, nuts and bolts, it has about 1,000 pieces.”

Each team is also required to compile an engineering notebook detailing its progress along the way. It’s 8x10, with more than 150 pages so far, and contains painstaking, handwritten notes, diagrams and photos. Said Akshay: “At every meeting, we wrote down our goals, problems and solutions.”

“We told what we accomplished that day and wanted to do later, including mistakes we made and how we corrected them,” said Abha. “So it’s basically our journey in a book.”

The team got the challenge in September and the members spent a couple months designing, testing and refiguring their robot’s design. Then, with guidance from coaches Suprotik Ghose and Seema Prasad, they built it, plus a practice model of the tic-tac-toe game.

“It took about three months to build our robot,” said Adithya. “But we only met twice a week. Our toughest challenge was — being a rookie FTC team — we had to learn all the rules, plus some new skills, such as electric wiring and setting up Samantha WiFi. It’s a module that lets the controllers communicate with the robot.”

“Never having built a robot before, we made a smaller one first to learn how the pieces work and what would be the best design,” said Abha.

Akshay said one of the biggest challenges was creating a robotic arm “that was not only stable, but would reach different heights. So we created a cascade lift that worked via ropes and pulleys to lift the arm.”

“We also had to keep the whole robot no bigger than 18 inches by 18 inches,” said Nitya.

“I enjoyed the tournament because it was a lot of fun,” said Vinh. “We had to make a presentation, so we talked about what was in our engineering notebook, what we did to our robot from start to finish, and our community outreaches. And it was fun seeing all the other robots and teams competing. We learned a lot from the other teams about robot design and strategies.”

Team Robowiz was the only team that was a finalist in three categories, and it won the Think Award. “It’s given to the team with the most organized and precise engineering notebook reflecting the competition guidelines,” said Adithya. “Ours also contained funny stories and jokes to show that we interacted and had fun doing this.”

So the students were happy to win that award, said Vinh, because “We thought our engineering notebook and presentation were especially good.”

Just six teams from the 26 in the UVA competition were chosen to advance to states and, said Abha, “We got the chance to go because of our overall performance, engineering notebook and community outreach.”

Still, Jami called it “kind of a shock because we came as a rookie [FTC] team, not expecting too much, and many other teams were veterans with more experience than us. So we were surprised and happy just to qualify for a few things.”

“And we were a middle-school team competing against high-school teams,” said Abha.

“I thought, overall, we were strong,” said Akshay. “When they announced our name, I was really happy.”

“Now we’ll fine-tune everything,” said Adarsh. “The most fun for me is messing with the metal pieces because I love building and fixing things.” Pleased that the team’s graduated from FLL to FTC, he added, “There’s so much more you can do with these pieces than with Legos because these are stronger.”

Regarding states, said Abha, “I’m excited and a little nervous about how we’ll do there, so I want to learn from the other teams so we’ll be able to perform even better.”