ORONO, Maine — The robotics kit arrives in 1,000 pieces, with wheels, wires and a remote control, and middle and high school students from across the state spend six weeks transforming them into functioning robots.
“It looks like an Erector Set on steroids,” Ron Canarr, robotics teacher at United Technologies Center in Bangor, said Saturday. “It doesn’t come assembled.”
Canarr and his five-member UTC team, Fatal Error, were at the first official VEX Robotics Competition in the state. The event, hosted by the University of Maine’s Robotics Club, featured 11 middle, high and technical schools from Maine and New Hampshire competing to design small, working robots.
The students’ robots had to fit into an 18-inch-square box and, for this year’s competition, move and stack 3-inch-square foam rubber blocks for a game called Elevation.
The students “take the science and math skills they have and apply them,” said Ryan Foley, a fifth-year UMaine mechanical engineering student and founder of the university’s robotics club.
“They get an idea of how it applies in the real world. They learn what engineering is like, how to do it, and they have fun,” said Foley, who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and mirrored safety glasses.
Canarr, who watched the UTC team but did not offer advice, said that in addition to designing the robot, building it and making it run, “they also have to learn to program it.”
Team coach Michael Raymond of Greenbush, a senior at Old Town High School, said the robotics class has taught him “how to fix and how to diagnose” problems.
Even as Raymond spoke, his team members decided to retool their robot between bouts, with just minutes to work.
“We have to rewire this,” one of them said as he pulled yellow wires from one part of the machine. He explained to the robot’s driver, William Jucius, a Hampden Academy senior, that the controller was operating backward from how it was running before.
During the next competition, Fatal Error didn’t do so well, and the team had to rush to fix the problem, again with only minutes to work with.
“Changing the program was bad,” said Albert Lowe, a home-schooled junior from Winterport who worked on the robot’s programming.
While Lowe downloaded two programs to make the machine work again, the robot’s arm operator, Dyllen Gibbs, a Hampden Academy junior, and mechanical man Justin Whittington, a Bangor High School junior, watched, the stress obvious on their faces.
The reprogramming worked eventually and the team was able to win the next round. They were eliminated later in the competition.
The VEX Robotic Competition is similar to the FIRST Robotic Competitions, a national event in which high school and college students create larger 120-pound robots, Foley said.
“This is the same experience but bite-sized,” he said, adding that the larger robots can cost $13,000 to $20,000, making the program too expensive for many schools.
The VEX classroom kit costs $700 and includes the curriculum. In the last year, the program has grown to more than 1,500 teams with at least one competition in each state.
“Next year more schools will get involved,” Foley said hopefully. “This is pretty cool.”
Some of the robots looked like eating machines, gobbling up the red and blue blocks like candy, while others simply scooped up the blocks.
One designed by 12-year-old Sam MacDuffie, a sixth-grader from Cape Elizabeth, had metal hands that looked like two spatulas that could press blocks between them.
Sam said the project was “sort of hard, but not as hard as I thought it was going to be” and added the hardest part was getting his robot to turn.
“I couldn’t get it to turn, but I changed the wheel size and it worked,” said MacDuffie, who was the only competitor working by himself. The other teams all had two to five members.
The event was won by an alliance of Greeley High School and Sanford Regional Vocational Center.
Other teams came from the Portland Arts and Technology High School, Jay Middle School and Jay High School, Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H., and Jesse Remington High School in Candia, N.H.
While most of the competitors were boys, there were a number of girls at the competition.
“In the past four or five years [the number of girls involved] is changing,” judge Lauren Mack said.
The younger competitors say they don’t worry about the older competitors, she said.
“You have to look up to them — they’re taller,” one middle-school student said to her.