Shelton robotics gearing up for next level of competition

Following wins in both Waterbury and the Southern Connecticut district event in Fairfield, Shelton High School’s robotics team is preparing for its next competition in Hartford, which will take place the first week of April.

The Hartford competition is at Hartford Public High School (55 Forest St) on April 7 10 a.m.-7 p.m.  &  April 8 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

After six long, hard weeks of building their robot, “Talon XIX,” aka Clyde, the members of Shelton’s Team 230 (GaelHawks) said their eyes are on advancing as far as possible into the 2018 FIRST robotics competition while having as much fun as they can.

With 45 members on the team this year, senior Jacob Zamani said, the GaelHawks have adopted a buddy system in which some of the older team members are paired with a younger player or two to help get them acclimated to the world of robotics.

Zamani added that although most players on the team possess one or more specific skills, team members may get involved wherever they have an interest.

“Part of our job is to help the younger members find their spot on the team,” said Zamani, explaining that he believes giving team members experience in multiple areas of robotics makes the team more well-rounded.

While the GaelHawks members said they spend hours each week practicing with their robot inside the new space within the district’s Board of Education headquarters, they also said they owe much of their success to the help of their mentors.

Sophomore team member Siddharth Jain said although all the team’s volunteers are instrumental, one the team’s engineering mentors has been especially helpful. Laura Spoldi, a software engineer with more than 30 years of experience, educates the team in coding.

“Without her we wouldn’t be where we are,” said Jain. “She guides us in code because she’s a software engineer. Her guidance has really helped us debug problems quickly, solve whatever problems we have, or handle any mechanism changes where we don’t know what to do. She’s always there for us.”

The other GaelHawk members echoed that sentiment and pointed to the assistance one of its other mentors has provided to the team. Rick Vogl has been equally vital to the team’s success, and his work was recognized by FIRST at a recent competition where he received an Outstanding Service Award.

“I was completely and utterly surprised,” said Vogl. “I never thought I would win an award at a FIRST district event. This is an award that they give to hard-working volunteers that help to organize and run an event. I have 20 years in the program, have done a lot within the organization, but I never expected to receive this. It means everything to me. I love the interaction with the kids — I teach them what I can and they teach me. They keep me young.”

Steven Spoldi said he has been impressed with the younger team members’ eagerness to learn.

“A lot of these kids are willing to jump in in any area and learn,” he said. “We have kids who have never picked up a tool in their lives working on bandsaws working on robots and then going off and researching designs working on word presentations. They are very dynamic, and very dedicated. I am so proud to be a part of this.”

2018 competition

Each year the FIRST teams are assigned a new game design to learn and build a robot to play. This year’s game design puts the teams “inside a video game.”

The design of the game is a three-on-three gameplay in which the two sides are competing to earn more points as their robots complete a variety of maneuvers accurately, and quickly.

The teams are expected to control and program their robots to be able to move “power cubes,” which are essentially small, closed cardboard boxes, into either what’s called a “switch,” a large rectangular container that is flat on the floor of the gameplay area, or a “scale,” whose balance is determined by the number of power cubes on either side.

“The game is a battle for ownership on one side of the scale or switch,” said senior team member and mechanical/safety captain Aravind Ravishankar.

When a team is in “control” of the switch or scale, it simply has more power cubes in the box or on top of the scale.

“If you have more cubes on your side, that will give you ownership,” said Ravishankar. “When you ‘own’ a switch or scale, it’s one point per second. If you’re ‘owning’ the scale and the switch, then your team is earning two points per second.”

According to Zamani, the two sides are composed of three teams. During the first 15 seconds of the game, the robots are strictly operating through what the team has programmed them to do. During the second two minutes and 15 seconds of gameplay, the robots are essentially doing the same exact tasks but are being controlled by the individual team’s driver.

The team with the most points at the end of the two-minute, 30-second game is the winner.

Strategy and design

According to Zamani, some robots are not designed to master both aspects of the game.

Clyde was built with an “elevator” mechanism that allows it to pick up power cubes and accurately place them on the scale once it has risen, according to Zamani.

“When you go to a competition, there’s about 80 qualification matches where you are ranked. The top eight ranked teams get to choose their alliance to compete with in the playoffs,” he saidi.

The GaelHawks’ 2018 robot was designed to be able to maneuver quickly and place the power cubes on the scale, according to Ravishankar.

Before the game even begins, the teams begin to talk strategy, according to Zamani, who said alliances will discuss what robot will be responsible for what task.

Fun first in FIRST

While all the teams share the desire to win, the GaelHawk members said their focus is on having fun and learning from their experience.

“FIRST is like a family, so they’re people that you can completely relate to,” said Zamani. “You do make a bunch of friends on other teams, and playing against them is kind of fun.”

Some of the team members said they feel pressure to live up to the reputation they have built for themselves over the past several years.

Zamani said the team’s practice regimen helps relieve some of that pressure. The team treats its practice sessions like a competition to assure members are always moving fast and efficiently.

“That way, when we get to competition we know we’re ready,” said Zamani, who explained that the team emphasizes the importance of timing every task.

Although team members have their eyes on the world championships in Detroit at the end of April, they are also learning lessons they are applying to other areas in their lives. Zamani said robotics has taught the team how to learn and grow from its failures.

“So many times during a match, something will go wrong or at least not as we planned, but we learned that freaking out does nothing positive. So we now know that sitting down to develop new strategy and find solutions is what’s going to bring you far in the competition and ultimately bring you far in life.”

Jain said working together to incorporate all of his team members’ ideas into one strategy has benefited them immensely.