Los Altos High School’s robotics team, Team 114 Eagle Strike, celebrated a first-place finish at the Ventura Regional FIRST robotics competition last month and will advance to the national championships in Houston, scheduled April 19-22.
The Los Altos High competitors pitted their student-built robot against 42 other high school teams from across the globe in the steampunk-themed challenge. The nearly 120-pound robot, which took them six weeks to build, program and test, crossed obstacles, climbed a rope and catapulted balls across the competition pit to win.
Robotics team members Albert Kutsyy, a junior, and sister Alice Kutsyy, a freshman, agreed that the build process was intense. Students routinely worked in the robotics lab until it closed at 8 p.m.
“Just for fun, I calculated one weekend,” Alice said. “I was (in the lab) for 21 hours.”
She still managed to play volleyball and do her homework. Alice credited a strong team rapport and the “amazing” leadership of the senior captains, who mentor younger members and make the hard work meaningful, not burdensome.
Students made all design decisions, such as prioritizing an advanced drivetrain system for maximum maneuverability, and machined many of the parts themselves. The team received support from sponsors including Google Inc. and Nvidia Corp., as well as contributions of paint from Gilbert Spray Coat, to color their robot “a very nice Eagle blue,” Albert said.
The multi-day Ventura regional was not an easy cruise to the finish line. Team 114’s robot experienced early problems with coding and wiring. Late in the game, the robot’s camera was pulled loose by a tough impact, trailing behind and slowing the machine down as it caught in the wheels. However, the team driver, who controls the robot with a joystick and DJ control pad, made the split-second decision to turn the robot sharply, snapping off the camera cable and enabling the robot to move on.
Ultimately, Albert said, the closely fought final round came down to the final 30 seconds of the match, as the heavy robots were tasked with climbing 6-foot ropes.
“It was incredibly tense,” he said. “If a rope snapped or a robot couldn’t attach, that would be game-deciding.”
After six weeks of work, and many years of competing without a first-place finish, team members said the win was an emotional experience.
“Everyone started cheering,” Albert said. “We ran out. Our teacher actually started crying from joy.”
As the team moves forward to nationals, he said, the team mood remains euphoric.
“It’s such a great opportunity,” Albert said. “After so many years, we finally did it. It’s the best feeling – something you’ve labored over for six weeks, staying at school late nights. It’s really something.”
Team 114 collaborated with teams from Ventura and Santiago, Chile, in the playoffs to win first place. It was the Los Altos team’s first win at a regional championship since its founding in 1997. Together with its Santiago and Ventura allies, Los Altos earned the highest-scoring round of the competition.