Robots take center stage at competition

By Gabriel Rom

Justin Pepe had a slice of pepperoni pizza in one hand and a pen in the other. Pepe, 15, a member of the Syosset Robotics team, was frantically sketching a redesign of his competitive robot in the cafeteria of Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, otherwise known this past weekend as “The Pit.”

Justin was joined by more than 100 other students from over 20 high schools around the tri-state area competing at the two-day FIRST Tech Challenge robotics qualifiers.
The competition required teams to design, develop and build robots based on sound engineering principles—and then put the robots to the test in the annual match-up.

The specific challenge, which changes yearly, was announced in September, forcing teams to develop a unique strategy, engineer their robot and then program it for competition.

“Teamwork is paramount,” said Sam Alexander, High School program manager for NYC FIRST, a non-profit organization that helps organize the tournament.

“This replicates pro engineering,” Alexander added. “You have cost and time constraints. You need to plan and you need to work with a team.”

In the Francis Lewis gym, Robot 10791 circled a makeshift robot arena, dodging its opponent. Four teams of three huddled around, controllers in hand.

The goal was for each team to use their robot to pick up and move debris into hard-to-reach goals

Suddenly, one of the robot’s mechanical arms started slamming down on the little plastic blocks.

Alex Koldy, 15, captain of the Forest Hills Mighty Mechanics, stood behind his robot’s operator and controller.

“Put the lever down,” he barked. “Move it down, just a little more!”

“Robot 10791 has dropped in a block!” said the announcer. A group of parents cheered wildly.

Alexander explained that the program marries sheer fun with complex problem solving. “When you are solving problems with friends, that’s when you want to keep doing something,” he said.

Back in the Pit, there was a flurry of activity.

Robotics teams were repairing their machines, testing out new designs, arguing about what had gone wrong or cheering about what had gone right. A voice came over the PA system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I found myself a joke: Is it hot in here or did your internal fan just system combust?”

The novice comedian was met with light-hearted boos.

At the table for the Forest Hills Mighty Mechanics, Derek Pastor, 15, from Middle Village could barely contain his excitement.

“We have come up with this genius measure,” he said.

The team had connected a tape measure to a motor in an attempt to jerry-rig the robot so it could better pick up the blocks and move them.

Pastor raised his hands in triumph. “It works!”

The Mighty Mechanics grew out of a small program with only four people in 2006, to 120 in 2015, said Iffat Mai, director of the Forest Hills Robotics League.

“At PS 144, there was no robotics program,” she said, “so we just decided to start one, and by word of mouth it spread.”

Alex, who has spent six years in robotics, says his biggest dream is to work in the aerospace industry.

Derek said his favorite part of the event is the collaborative process.

“No one is trying to hide design secrets,” he said. “We all just want to have fun and help each other.”

“I just love this stuff. I can’t get enough of it.”

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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