Overseas robotics competition builds more than future innovators

St Peters Lutheran College

James and Lachlan teamed up with their robotics partners, Grace Lutheran College, and took part in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Global Competition (FGC) in Dubai. The challenge brought together 191 countries, each sending one team of high school students, aged 14 –18 years, with the common goal of increasing their knowledge of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and becoming the next generation of innovative leaders.

Vinesh N. (Year 10), community outreach manager for St Peters Robotics, says “St Peters has been representing as Team Australia since the competition began in 2017.” For the Dubai competition a total of five students teamed together. “We have been working with Grace since 2016 in another competition called FIRST Robotics Competition and are known as The Pineapples,” says Vinesh.

CHALLENGE AROUND OCEAN OPPORTUNITIES

Each FGC challenge is themed around issues facing our planet which come from the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering, identified by the National Academy of Engineering. James says, “this year the challenge is called Ocean Opportunities.” In 2016 the first challenge (in Washington) was themed around water efficiency, the second one (in Mexico) was energy efficiency and this year cleaning oceans took centre stage. The competition also fosters understanding and cooperation among the youth of the world and using their abilities to solve the world’s problems together.

Team Australia built their 45 x 45 x 45 cm robot ready to take on the challenges over the three-day event. As part of the annual event teams have one for day preparation and participate in the impressive opening and closing ceremonies.

Prior to the challenges some intense strategising takes place, “you look at the other teams with an alliance in mind,” explains Vinesh. “We see what other robots specialise in, strengths and weaknesses, and compare their robot to ours.”

THE PLAYING FIELD

The event is organised in two parts. “There’s the qualifying matches and then there’s the finals. The qualifying matches are when teams are given an alliance and the finals are when the top eight teams pick two partners to be apart of a chosen alliance. That alliance of three countries competes in quarters, semis and then eventually the finals. “We partnered with Team Italy, Team Uganda and Team Israel,” says James.

As part of the challenge the robotic playing field is covered in ‘pollutants’. The micro and macro pollutants, represented by small and large foam balls, litter the field/ocean. Cleanup Crews use their robot collectors to score points by transferring balls to two areas. One area is located in the centre and divided into a blue and red alliance side. Collectors score points by depositing balls on the three levels/tiers. As the levels progress from lowest to highest, the point value increases.

Randomised balls are released and flood in to the arena then, in exactly two minutes and 30 seconds, four robots scoop up the balls and put them into the tiers for points. James says, “it’s harder to lift the balls up because you have to lift them higher. The small balls are easier while the big ones can be heavy and can tip the robot.” During the last frantic 30 seconds called ‘End Game’ controllers need to be able to hook their robot onto the second tier and lift it off the ground for extra points.

Working with different alliances from different countries with potential language barriers provides an extraordinary collaborative setting. Most teams try to have at least one English-speaking person in their team. “However some people don’t and it’s hard to communicate sometimes but you get there—you use pictures.” James explains, “you learn to adapt on the spot to cooperate with someone you’ve never met and work together.” Vinesh adds, “we all speak through the similar language of robotics.”

When it comes to operating the robot, “you can either have one or two people working on it, depending on what is easiest,” says James. Some people have one person controlling the base and another controlling the lifting mechanism. “We had one person controlling the lifting mechanism and the base.”

James describes the competition as exhilarating. “You’re nervous, you have to keep it under control, but it is very exciting.”

While the challenges are “exhilarating and nerve-wrecking”, with little sleep during the week, Team Australia surged on. “There was support from people who you don’t expect, who aren’t from Team Australia,” says James. Vinesh continues, “in FIRST it’s called Gracious Professionalism. That means you’re supporting each other, helping each other out, while giving your all on the competition floor.”

GRACIOUS PROFESSIONALISM

Vinesh continues, “the competition is more than ‘just about winning’.” There are various awards including Design, Inspire, Motivate and there’s a Judge’s Award. “The silver medal we won was for the competition specifically. We were the second best alliance when competing. There might have been other teams competing which may have won a medal for their outreach, or for inspiring their community; for example, Team India sent an all girls robotics team which was great.”

Receiving the medal for Team Australia was huge says James, “like a massive rush of blood — my heart was racing so fast. There were cameras — the media in front of you and you’re on the podium. It was pretty amazing.”

James says, apart from Team Australia coming second, “which was cool — the highlights of this trip have been travelling and competing with a great team of mates and making heaps of friends from different countries. I’ve had to look up half the countries because I’d never heard of them before.”

Recently the robotics team won the Queensland State Competition together with Grace Lutheran College. The robotics team will now be heading to Macquarie University, Sydney in December this year.

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