I, Robot

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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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson