I, Robot

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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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson