Robotic claws, spinning mechanisms and autonomous maneuvering guided by high-tech light and touch sensors send intricately designed robots into choreographed missions during competitions known as Botball.
The Los Altos Community Team – comprising 16 members from grades 6-12 – took first place at the Northern California Regional Botball Tournament in San Mateo last month, earning members a spot in the Global Conference on Educational Robotics, scheduled for July in Edwardsville, Ill.
The Los Altos Botball team offers students an opportunity to participate in the program, created by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Members build their skills as they work together to design, construct and program autonomous robots.
“The kids can be of any age range, and the participation is very equal,” said Los Altos resident Scott Montgomery, coach of the local Botball team. “We have sixth-graders who contribute as much as high school juniors.”
Montgomery’s son, Kyle, 16, who serves as team captain, said a sixth-grader held the position of head programmer last season.
“It’s really fun not only to interact with members of this team in a really tight-knit community, but we have good relationships with other teams in the area and across the country,” Kyle said.
The program allows members to refine a wide range of mechanical skill sets, including building various parts of the robots, computer programming, research, documentation and computer-aided design.
“These kids learn practices that are exactly like what you would see at a tech company around here,” Montgomery said.
For competitions, each team receives a parts kit that contains LEGOs, electronics, motors and sensors, none of which can be modified, Kyle said, keeping the playing field even. However, teams are not limited in the number of robots they can build given the materials provided.
“Our team has three robots, while most teams have only two, which is something that’s innovative with our designs,” said team member Spencer Witte, 13, of Los Altos.
The Botball season starts in late January. Members meet weekly to strategize, discuss how to construct their robots to carry out specific missions as efficiently as possible and prepare for regional competitions, held late March through early May.
The competitions involve placing the robots on a large, H-shaped board on which they attempt to perform specific functions. The teams score points based on their robots’ success at fulfilling the tasks.
One of the Los Altos team’s robots, dubbed “Quackbot,” sports a rectangular-shaped clamp attached to a retractable arm used to pick up rubber ducks and place them on a specific line on the board. Quackbot executed the task flawlessly during a brief demonstration.
“The robots are autonomous, which is a fairly big challenge,” said Montgomery, who noted that more advanced college-age competitions allow the use of remote controls.
Another robot, “Ribbot,” has a rubber cylinder similar to a tire connected to a spinning mechanism that sweeps up green fuzzy balls, or “frogs.” Ribbot’s mission is to collect as many frogs as possible.
The robot missions must be completed within two minutes. If any of the robots are still in motion after time has expired, the team is disqualified.
The teams, organized in brackets, compete in double-elimination tournaments.
“The robots are completely on their own, so the boys have to spend a lot of time anticipating what might go wrong, and very carefully choreograph everything that they do,” Montgomery said.