I, Robot

Build it and it will lift and block. Or it will die.

Designing and creating a robot takes months. Watching it die takes only a second. For the robotics team at Atlantic Technical School in Coconut Creek, death visits in the late afternoon on March 10 in Orlando, the day before a two-day robotics competition that could take team members all the way to the national finals in Atlanta and a piece of a $5 million scholarship fund.

Like hundreds of other high school teams, the Tech Tigers began building their machine in January. Atlantic's completed robot, known simply as 1251, has the appearance of a miniature medieval catapult, crouched and ready to unleash a brawny arm. Team members can't wait to see it in action.

When 1251 is summoned over the public address system in the University of Central Florida's arena, David Juzman and Daniel Mendez lug the 100-pound machine onto the carpeted playing field, where it will compete against other robots. The little one-armed warrior will advance based on its ability to pick up "tetras" -- three-dimensional triangles made from plastic tubing -- and place them atop triangular goals to score points.

Hundreds of people, including a sizable contingent from Atlantic Tech, watch from the bleachers. Competitors watch too, sizing up 1251. In the Byzantine strategy of the game, the impression the little robot leaves on other teams could mean the difference between heading to Atlanta in late April or a humble ride home.

It's a tense moment.

When the buzzer sounds, 1251's arm slides up, and its rubber treads carry the machine quickly to the sideline to pick up a tetra, loaded by Andrew Disbury, one of the bot's builders. But seconds later, with the nine-pound dead weight hanging from the telescoping arm, 1251 stops. Its arm slowly droops like a branch overloaded with snow. The cheering section for Atlantic Tech grows quiet and somber. Juzman and Mendez, their faces gripped with anxiety, rotate the control knobs like eggbeaters to bring life back.

It remains stranded on the playing field -- a pathetically paralyzed heap -- until the two-minute contest is over.

Juzman and Mendez slowly hoist the dead machine onto a wheeled cart and push it back to the pit. To say it's an inauspicious start for the Tech Tigers (whose name derives from their school's mascot) would be the understatement of the year.

Fortunately, all is not lost. When you've built something from scratch, even a machine as complex as a remote-controlled robot, you're more than its master. You're the creator who gave it life, and robot death is just one more obstacle to overcome.


The birthplace of 1251 is a crowded shop room in a well-hidden building on the sprawling campus of Atlantic Technical Center, which is a magnet high school for students interested in the trades.

In late January, the half-dozen principal builders toil over the prototype, which at this point is limited to a chassis, held up by four spined wheels encircled by two thick rubber belts, much like the tracks of a tank. Working right along with them is David Ellich, the teacher in charge of the team, a wiry man with clipped salt-and-pepper hair and an easygoing manner that helps him cope with teens and robots. He joined Atlantic Tech last year and initiated the robot program (the 2004 Tech Tigers made it to the finals but were then quickly crushed).

The team's competition stretches all the way to Mexico, Ecuador, Canada, Great Britain, and Israel. About 25,000 students have been building robots since early January, with seven other teams from South Florida, including a feisty group from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach led by a take-charge 16-year-old girl.

For all the high school roboteers, the opening phase of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition kicks off shortly after New Year's Day. Deadlines are strict. The robots must be completed and shipped by February 22.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter, founded the program in 1992, its purpose being to simulate the business model used in creating a new mechanism, including designing, computer modeling, engineering, advertising, and public relations. Remember all the hype surrounding the Segway's development?

Each team is given a basic "build kit," of which certain components must be used. But consistent with its goal of keeping it "real-world," FIRST allows teams to use other materials and work with established businesses, which act as mentors. Atlantic Tech is teamed with Sonny's Car Wash Factory, a local company that produces the kinds of machined parts integral to a robot. Their engineers offer advice, machining, and parts.

FIRST requires a mountain of time, with some participants working an extra six hours each day after school and Saturdays for almost two months. "For our kids," Ellich says, "we've made this our varsity sport."

Building a weightlifting robot involves -- at least at the high school level -- a torrent of palaver, which is alternately comical, aimless, excoriating, and inspired.

"We got everybody together, and for about a week, we didn't even discuss mechanical," recalls Disbury, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with wispy blond hair and sideburns that give him a hipster look. He's training to be a machinist, and his mechanical common sense tends to have a calming effect on the team. "We asked ourselves, 'Looking at the rules of the game, what do we want to do to win the game?'" He points to an easel holding large sheets of paper, all covered with black marker notes from a week's worth of brainstorming.

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