BANGOR, Maine — It wasn’t reminiscent of a Transformers movie, but the competition was no less exciting for participants or the 150 spectators watching Saturday’s VEX Robotics Competition Championship at the Bangor Auditorium.
The fourth annual competition geared toward middle and high school students involved robots that looked more like crosses between Erector Sets and the Johnny 5 robots of “Short Circuit” movie fame.
The overall winners of Saturday’s daylong championship event not only secured one of the 320 spots at the VEX Robotics World Championship at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., April 18-21, but they also earned travel grants from Fairchild Semiconductor in the amount of $400 for each World Championships competitor and coach.
Although Ethan Peters and Henry Jones weren’t even doing these competitions a year ago, and their debut didn’t go well, they seem to be getting the hang of this whole robot thing. Their Yarmouth Infinite Improbability Robotics team was one of three making up the winning alliance that won the title in an exciting championship match.
The two eighth-graders at Yarmouth Middle School rolled their eyes when asked how their first competition went.
“Uh, not good. … Not so well,” said Jones.
So what was the difference this time around?
“Uh, it worked,” Jones said with a laugh.
“Last time, our intake and basket for holding the balls and barrels wasn’t working. We got it to work today,” said Peters. “At the beginning today, the arm was getting stuck as it was going up, so we had to fix that.”
Jones, Peters and Yarmouth High School students Francis Leith and Harry Munroe did just that as they teamed up with the Aperture Science and Black Mesa clubs from Thetford Academy in Vermont to edge an all-Maine alliance team made up of Greely High School, Cape Robotics of Cape Elizabeth and North Yarmouth Academy 20-17 in the title match.
The object of the competition was to build a better robot that can move, scoop, lift, carry and discard multiple small plastic balls or “barrels” into high and low chutes or “goals” in a gated arena. The blue and red teams earn points for the number of blue and red balls and barrels deposited in the goals.
“This is what engineering’s all about. It’s hands-on, doing things that are really fun while trying to solve a problem and make a difference,” said Dr. Dana Humphrey, professor and dean of the University of Maine’s college of engineering.
The robots resembled moving ramps made out of girders when compacted and mobile stairs with arms when fully extended.
In all, 20 clubs or teams representing 11 schools from Maine and Vermont competed. The teams begin working on their robot designs for the VEX Championships in September.
“I love seeing how incredibly capable and creative these young kids are,” said Humphrey, who served as a judge at Saturday’s competition. “To see the capabilities of some of these middle school kids is just unbelievable.
Then they get to be high schoolers and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ They are real bright spots for our future.”
Cape Robotics also earned a spot at the world finals by winning the Maine VEX excellence award.
High school and middle school teams came from John Bapst Memorial High School of Bangor, Cape Elizabeth, Greely of Cumberland Center, Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Erskine Academy of South China, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, Catherine McAuley of Portland and Thetford Academy. Also competing were teams from Bangor’s United Technologies Center and Sanford Regional Vocational Center.
John Bapst’s 12-member team, which has been around for only two years, made it into the quarter-final round Saturday.
“We’re looking at doing another,” said team adviser Michael Murphy, a computer science and engineering teacher at John Bapst. “Students were saying they’d really like to give it another go, especially now that they’ve learned a lot by looking at the other robots here today.”
The team invested countless hours and effort in its robot as well as about $1,000. That’s pretty inexpensive, comparatively speaking.
“For a new team, I’d say putting one together and traveling and everything would cost about $2,000,” said David Hart, a junior engineering major at UMaine and second-year director of the championship meet. “This is a much more economical league to be in than others because it doesn’t cost people as much for the technology or making the kinds of robots you need to win in other competitions.”
Humphrey said the expense is worth it, considering the returns the students — as well as the state — are getting.
“These activities are critical to getting young people in our state interested in STEM careers,” said Humphrey, referring to science, technology, engineering and math-related disciplines. “Maine ranks 49th nationally in per capita production of engineers. We have to step up our game if Maine’s economy is going to be able to move forward.
“What our graduates and research is doing is moving Maine’s economy forward.”