I, Robot

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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."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson