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The robot gang: Math and Science Academy gears up for world championships

Vardaan Gupta, Ray Huntley and Alex Meyer (from left) work on their robot at Math and Science Academy. Their robotics team, the Rhythm Packed Mechanics, will compete at the FTC World Championships next month in Detroit. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia

WOODBURY — Trial. Error. Repeat.

That's the unspoken methodology of a group of Math and Science Academy students.

Next month, their team, the Rhythm Packed Mechanics (RPM), will compete at the FTC (First Tech Challenge) World Championship in Detroit.

The second-year robotics team has been focused on improving the design of their sole nonhuman teammate, a zippy little cube with claws named Phillip D. Lander.

"Once we get closer to the competition, we meet a lot more frequently and lengthen the amount of practices," co-captain Anita Chetty said.

The only good robot is a better robot, team members said. Judges, most of whom are engineers, would rather see advancement and innovation from one tournament to the next. Victory is sweet, but experimentation and honorable failures are also rewarded.

In that respect, Phillip D. Lander is always a work in progress, a constant tweaking of software, algorithms and servo motors.

"On the design side, we're going to try to improve our arm mechanism and extend it a little bit," co-captain Alex Meyer said. "We were having trouble with innacurries and wobble. ... We're trying to improve efficiency and accuracy."

The robot grabs objects by means of a retractable arm and a pair of dual claws that were inspired by the pinchers of the villain Dr. Octopus, the comic book nemesis of the Amazing Spiderman. To improve the claws' gripping power, students attached pads that were made by cutting stress balls in half. And yes, that was every bit as stressful as it sounds.

"You build it, try it, you see a problem, you fix it," Meyer said.

One such problem occurred at their first tournament in November. The team had to do some serious MacGyver-ing when judges ruled that a motor that powered a vacuum on Phillip's scooping claw was illegal.

They had to gut and rebuild Phillip D. Lander in 10 minutes, lead builder Vardaan Gupta said.

"That was a fun day," Gupta said with a laugh. "In that 10 minutes we basically made a scooper."

"It was just a rod," Meyer said.

"We just extended it out," Chetty said. "It was playing golf with all the balls and minerals."

The balls and minerals actually are plastic cubes and Wiffle balls that Phillip must grab during a timed match with another team's robot.

Imagine a couple of lunar rovers racing to retrieve the most samples from the surface of the moon. Each robot must operate on its own for 30 seconds, during which it lowers itself to the ground from the lander.

The scramble for the minerals comes during the two minutes of driver-controlled action. The final maneuver — which can give a team 50 points — entails the robot latching onto the lander and pulling themselves back up.

Meyer, 17, will be the driver for the Rover Ruckus at the World Championships. He'll guide Phillip's movements with a gaming joystick.

"It's thrilling," he said. "By the end of the day you're absolutely exhausted."

Chetty, 15, is one of four Minnesota finalists for the FIRST or Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Dean's List Award. She was recognized at the FTC State Competition. The winner will be announced in Detroit.

The team also includes Luke Grotewold, Amogh Matada, Sam Wurdemann, Owen Zeller, Vardaan Gupta, Ray Huntley and AJ Bearth.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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