I, Robot

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.

The robots don't fight each other per se. (Sorry, Battle Bots fans.) Rather, they perform in a game called Triple Play, in which the robots -- each working in tandem with two other robots -- have two minutes to lift, move, and set down tetras. There are various ways and places to score, and most robots need to specialize at one task.

"The robot is totally the product of the strategy," Disbury says. "You can't really design something without knowing what it has to do."

From this brainstorming, the students decided they needed to build a machine with enough traction that it wouldn't get pushed around. Moreover, they wanted enough grip to play defense if they were allied with two high-scoring robots. They also wanted to keep the robot simple, preferably avoiding pneumatics, which complicates things with air lines and compressors.

The arm, however, tests the team's ingenuity. The first time the students fully extend the arm perpendicular to the floor and then try to lift a tetra, the motor can't pull the arm upright, and it starts billowing smoke. Later, they spend many hours trying to solve a problem of the arm's not retracting.

In a marketplace of ideas, young egos ride on whose solution finds merit.

Juzman, who's slightly stocky with a full head of dark hair that almost reaches his shoulders, begins to pitch an idea for retracting the arm. He's an intense 17-year-old, the most serious of the robot builders. Kevin Kusiak, a crack machinist who's tall and skinny with spiky black hair, resists the scheme.

Mendez, a bantam 17-year-old who sweeps his short black hair to the center of his head, where it stands like a spiny lizard's back, listens for a while, then loses patience. "If you don't like this idea, tell us yours," he grouses to Kusiak.

"I never said that I didn't like it," Kusiak responds.

Juzman, the problem-solver of the group, cuts in: "It's not that he doesn't like it; it's just that he needs to fully understand it to kind of like it."

Out of such head-knocking are solutions drawn. The Tigers go with a strap-and pulley-controlled arm.

Over at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, another team is going through much the same process. The Roboticks are in the midst of building a robot remarkably similar to 1251. It sits on a rectangular base with four rubber tires and also possesses a telescoping arm, but its hand looks like a four-tined fork that Paul Bunyan might have eaten with.

Joshua Bernstein, a short, smiley freshman, is putting the machine through its paces. Nearby, Alyna Ahanmamooreni, a junior who heads the mechanical/electrical team, is calling out directions. "Go all the way up," she says. "Turn right. Down." With a pained face, she says, "Man, that arm is making me angry. You want to work on that today?"

Ahanmamooreni is petite, with long, black hair -- and a darned sight more stylish than most robot builders. Her belt buckle, a mockup of an auto seat belt, is a meeting of her fashion sense and her inner engineer. She wants to be an engineer or architect. "If that doesn't work out, I have the other side of my brain," she quips.

As her crew works, Ahanmamooreni explains how the arm works, a tangle of wires and pulleys that somewhat mimics a forklift.

"We have a core group who are really into what they're doing, not for the purposes of showing up other people," she says. "I do this because I'm learning. I know one day I'll look back and see this as about possibilities."

Still, a vague sense of pessimism pervades the Roboticks -- though not about their own abilities. "There are schools where this is cool to do," Ahanmamooreni says in a tone as though she's thinking of Valhalla. "In our school, no one even knows about this." Ely's thing is sports, she says, especially football, and the Roboticks come off as the stereotypical "close group of really weirdo kids."

If there have to be underdogs in the contest, the Roboticks qualify.

Ahanmamooreni directs a bolt of scorn at some of her better-endowed competitors. "We don't have engineers here building it for us," she says, touching on the thorny subject of "mentor" companies helping FIRST teams. There are few limitations about how much mentors can contribute in work, parts, and money, so there's widespread grumbling about teams partnered with the likes of GM, Motorola, Ford, NASA, and other übertech companies. The Roboticks are receiving help from EnerDel, a lithium-battery company in Fort Lauderdale. Great people, but not the manufacturers of much that's directly useful for building robots.

The team's teacher coordinator, Marcos Pernas, who speaks in a strong baritone voice and a thick Spanish accent, felt like a drowning man sometimes during the building phase. "Oh man, we're in deep doodoo," he laments four weeks into construction. They have all the parts they need but can't get them machined or welded.

Ahanmamooreni is a rarity in the testosterone-soaked environs of teenybob mechanical engineering, but her analytical mind, dry wit, and somber gaze are an ample survival kit. She employs the whole arsenal when it comes to keeping everyone busy in the short time they have. At one point, the ever-bubbly Bernstein, who's been involved in various robot-building projects since elementary school, shows her a logo and slogan he's created for the Roboticks team T-shirts. The gist of the slogan, which riffs off an esoteric advertisement, involves a tick vanquishing a dog. Robot-tick, get it?

"That's not going on our shirts," she says definitively.

"But you know how we infect dogs... because of ticks," Bernstein says lamely. Case closed.

Ahanmamooreni hands a quarter-inch aluminum plate to Bernstein and Matthew Fogel, a tall, blond sophomore. It's the width and height of a dictionary, with black marker delineating the shapes of pieces that need to be cut out. This is no small project in this primitively equipped shop. (One of its crowning implements is a drill press, which has been rendered virtually useless because the chuck key is lost.) They're going to have to use an electric hand jigsaw.

"You're going to have numb hands," Bernstein tells his teammate.

"Make sure when you grip it, hold it like you expect a boulder to hit," Ahanmamooreni warns.

They move off to a table across the room. A few minutes later, Fogel yells, "Alyna, are mess-ups -- failures -- not an option in this case?"

She's silent for a moment.

"What do you mean?" she blurts out.

"If I mess up..."

"I haven't even heard the thing start up and you're already pondering the fact that you're going to screw up?" she says, half-joking. "If that's the case, I want Josh holding that, not you."

"Well, Josh doesn't want to hold it because he knows he'll screw up."

"I don't think I'll screw up!" Bernstein interjects cheerfully.

"Then why don't you want to use it, chickenshit?"

She urges Fogel to just go ahead and cut and breaks the tension by adding: "If I did it, I might excite you guys, and I'd rather not do that." They all crack up.

"I can't really blame you," Fogel says, "because that probably is the truth. "

The mood at the regional robot competition on March 10 is a mix of gladiatorial spectacle, March Madness, and pocket-protector Geeks Gone Wild. It's an intense, hectic time of impromptu repairs, strategizing, and unabashed shrieking.

Almost 50 teams have gathered, from as far away as Massachusetts, Texas, and Ohio. Several have trailered in complete machine shops, along with a cadre of professional engineers. Many schools have brought scores of supporters, each dressed in their team's distinctive colors. Atlantic Tech's 50-strong group of boosters is dressed in bright orange. "David + Kevin: Baby, you can drive my robot," reads one hand-painted sign.

There is, however, no sign of a rooting section for the Roboticks and their robot, 408.

"Team 408," the PA announces, "please report to the playing field. If you're not going to play, please inform us." At that very moment, the Ely team works hectically to rearrange some wires to pass reinspection. They're upbeat as the burly, big-gutted inspector mulls over 408. "How's the battery going to stay in if it flips over?" he asks as he jiggles the quart-sized power source.

"We'll Velcro it down," Pernas quickly answers.

Each team will play six times in the following day and a half, and the top eight teams will make the playoffs. The good news for many of the other teams, however, is that the game is played with alliances of three teams. The top eight will pick two allies each, meaning 24 teams will reach the playoffs.

Strategically, this means that a team like Ely, which will have a hard time making the Final 8, could prove itself useful to an alliance -- that is, if 408 can find a niche. The rest of today is for practice matches, a chance to find that specialty.

During its second practice match, 408 is rammed hard by a robot with a wedged body and no arm, built entirely for defense. The Ely bot teeters back and forth and then tips on its side. The battery tumbles out. Velcroless.

The same kind of bad luck hits 1251 a short while later as it dies on the field. Juzman and Mendez wheel it back to the pit, where one student works on a computer program to track the strengths and weaknesses of all 50 robots. A few large plastic tubs hold tools and spare parts. Four batteries sit beneath a table being recharged.

It doesn't take the team long to discover that a short in a battery cable had caused the premature death. Good thing, they all agree, that it happened now and not tomorrow, when it all really counts.

Friday's playoffs quickly reveal who will dominate this contest.

Swamp Thing, whose body is only two-thirds the size of most robots, moves two, perhaps three times as fast as any other bot thanks to a specially made gearbox. Its driver, Tytus Gerrish, a lanky 18-year-old senior from Inlet Grove Community High School in Riviera Beach, controls the machine as though it's a natural-born limb.

Coco Beach High School's neon pink machine is also formidable, primarily because it is equipped with a T-shaped arm so it can carry two tetras at a time. It doesn't hurt, of course, that they're mentored by NASA.

Another team built a robot that doesn't really have an arm; it sits high enough that it just loads up three tetras and then plops them all at once on a goal.

The scales fall from the eyes of other teams, who realize that their robot designs were myopic. The recognition ripples through the pits: Why did we limit our robot to carrying one tetra at a time? For most, it's too late to make changes, but Atlantic Tech cooks up a contingency plan to have Disbury load two tetras onto the robot. Problem is, the method for doing so makes it easy for Disbury to foul by touching the robot. That's a ten-point penalty. It's a last-resort strategy that the team keeps in reserve.

Most of the Atlantic team members have dyed their hair orange and painted their fingernails black, orange, black, orange. Some have stripes of orange on their cheeks. Disbury carries a broomstick with a stuffed tiger hugging the end. Atlantic Tech's robot proves to be a solid if not glitzy performer. It doesn't go for fancy scoring, like Swamp Thing, sticking instead to a small area where it piles up the points.

The Roboticks also seem to find a groove with 408. Before their first match of the day, they consult with their allies, whose bots are proficient at scoring. They decide that 408 will act purely defensively by blocking. With its heavy chassis, 408 performs like a 300-pound defensive guard throwing his weight around. The Roboticks alliance wins the match easily, and the Ely team is jubilant back in the pit. It's the last real elation they'll feel during this competition, however.

During their next match, they put 408 through the same defensive paces, but their wheels get hung up on a tetra. The stunning blow comes, however, when the judges slap them with a 30-point penalty for illegally interfering with another robot. It's a crusher. They lose the match 45-0, with all their points eaten up by penalties. Back in the pit, Pernas turns against the defensive tack. "We need to score," he declares. "They're going to be watching us," he says of the judges.

"Stop, stop, stop!" shouts Eric Cho, the team's president. "There's six teams here that are doing what we do, so they're not just watching us." But the Roboticks approach defense far more gingerly from then on and never get within reach of the finals.

The curtain falls more happily for Atlantic Tech, although not without its heartbreak. The Tech Tigers take third place in the playoffs, meaning they are among the eight teams that select allies for the finals. Swamp Thing and Coco Beach High School, the top two in the playoffs, join forces. Swamp Thing malfunctions during the first match of the finals, and it tears around the court like a berserk vacuum cleaner before smashing to a stop. The mishap gives hope to other finalists -- though, in the spirit of FIRST, open gloating is frowned upon -- but Swamp Thing is back on the field after a short pit stop.

The Tech Tigers' alliance is a strong one. One of its allies is a robot with a sophisticated drive train that allows it to move forward and back, then instantly move sideways. It's spectacular at harassing other robots. The alliance makes it to the final, which is a best-of-three contest. Reaching this point is a fine victory in itself, securing Atlantic Tech a place in the FIRST nationals in Atlanta, which begin April 21.

But the robot gods keep the makers of 1251 humble as they fall to the Swamp Thing alliance in the final match. Yet there's no mood of defeat. "I'm not disappointed at all," Disbury says in his aw-shucks way. "Think about it: We're only a second-year team." Indeed, there's only elation as a crowd of orange-clad Tech Tigers floods the pits a few minutes later. They've built a contender.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson