Playing Ball With Robots

Hawaii students in a robotics competition are doing things space engineers couldn’t accomplish just a few years ago

Friday - April 07, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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Bot down!: This Bot flipped over during the competition
Bot down!: This Bot flipped over during the

Release the robots - the Tribbles are in trouble! Sorry, Trekkies, this isn’t a revival of one of America’s most beloved TV shows. This drama unfolded at the Hawaii Convention Center, where dozens of robots went head-to-head at the 2006 Hawaii Regional Botball Tournament - complete with a cheering gallery of spectators, players sporting sprayed-red hair and painted faces, and two emcees calling play by plays.

The hubbub centered around three playing fields, each about the size of a ping pong table. All involved robots were designed, built, programmed, calibrated, tweaked and re-tweaked in the name of saving little colored balls called Tribbles and a mascot named Botguy - the latter of which was suspended above the table atop a swinging arm - from an imagined flood disaster. Collecting supplies, namely orange and other colored balls, earned the teams extra points.

Twenty-four teams of middle school and high school students from Hawaii and one from Japan competed in the daylong tournament with one goal in mind: to score as many points as possible in 90 seconds. Just how they went about it varied greatly.

Most schools used two robots working in tandem; some used a single robot. The team from Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island designed a robot that went on the offensive, attempting to rid its opponents of their rescued Tribbles with an arm that spun a rubber-looking band in a whip like motion. Mid-Pacific Institute combined a series of three scoopers and a conveyor belt into a design that took them all the way to the finals, where they lost to the undefeated Team 2 from Waiakea High School on the Big Island.

“There’s other things in here; it’s pretty complicated,” Brycen Chun, a Mid-Pacific senior, says as he opens up the team’s bot, Behemoth.

Judges Reid Sasaki and Wendell Thomas (red hats) tabulate the score of Waipahu’s Bryce Nagareda and Dongie Agnir
Judges Reid Sasaki and Wendell Thomas (red hats)
tabulate the score of Waipahu’s Bryce Nagareda and
Dongie Agnir

Botball program manager Marci Corey says all the teams start with the same kit, containing about 1,800 pieces of Legos “and a big box of electronics - the sensors, the microprocessors.”

In Hawaii, the game is unveiled in February at a two-day training, where teams build a small demonstration robot and learn programming. From there, teams have seven to eight weeks to prepare for the tournament, and the results are always unique. “Some will use a scooping mechanism ... some will have little claws,” says Corey, who works for the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, a nonprofit that uses robotics to promote science, math and technology. “It just depends on what the team thinks will work best for that particular game that year. It’s different every single year and from every single region. You never see two robots that look remotely alike.”

Highlands Intermediate School’s robots Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb earned praise from KISS Institute co-founder David Miller, who was watching tableside. “This is nice, they have their robots really well-coordinated, and doing a nice job,” he says, stopping to ask the team if they’re using a camera to track the orange ball on a shelf above the table. “Yup. Yup,” the students answer. Then when Tweedle Dee successfully extends its arm up, out and grabs the orange ball, the spectators scream. And Miller, a former NASA engineer who worked on the Mars Pathfinder mission designing and programming early test robots, says: “Literally five years ago there were contests held by professional computer science societies that had graduate students and companies competing to do actually a simpler version of this. And so the technology is really advanced, and the kids have been able to make the conceptual leap and make use of this.”

The Botball Educational Robotics Program began in Florida in 1997 and is the KISS Institute’s flagship project. Hawaii had its first regional botball tournament in 2004 and will be hosting the National Conference on Educational Robotics next summer. Botball teams from each of the 13 regions will be invited, and about 40 to 50 are expected to attend the conference and tournament.

Art Kimura, an education specialist at the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium and a co-director of Hawaii Botball, is thrilled. “Oh absolutely,” he says. “Because we never thought this would happen, but they like the venue, the convention center. They like the fact we have good support - we have 42 volunteers here today to help facilitate - all these teachers that come from the community, and we have engineers from companies they come and volunteer to help.”

On Saturday, volunteer judges kept score, provided play by play, posted scores and made sure adults stayed out of the playing area and what’s called “the pit.”

“That’s the preparation area,” Kimura says. “They come and prepare their robot, so you see a lot of laptop computers here so they’re tweaking up the programming. If they went through it one time they’ll come back and redesign it a little bit to make it work better.”

Tweaking between rounds was commonplace, from reprogramming the timing of a stop to adjusting attachments. Even Waiakea Judges Reid Sasaki and Wendell Thomas (red hats) tabulate the score of Waipahu’s Bryce Nagareda and Dongie Agnir High’s team 2, which won the double elimination championship, ended an early round with zero points, thanks to a malfunctioning sensor. “I think a light sensor didn’t catch, so this bot was not able to move out of that bot’s way ... created a big road block,” says team member Amber Imai, whose hair was sprayed red like that of her teammates’.

Mid-Pacific’s Brycen Chun and Julian Hartline get personally involved with their Bot
Mid-Pacific’s Brycen Chun and
Julian Hartline get personally
involved with their Bot

The fix was a simple repositioning of the sensor. The team’s two robots, the larger Kremlin, which scored most of the team’s points, and the smaller Band-Aid, which scooped up the Tribbles, and was programmed to move a 1-1/2 inch PVC coupling out of Kremlin’s way, advanced toward the finals without much trouble for the rest of the day.

Imai says the team’s strategy was to sacrifice Botguy and some Tribbles while earning more points by pulling and holding a row of six balls over the plane of its playing field - scoring 18 points in one fell swoop. “(Kremlin) pushes all the stuff on the top onto our opponent’s side,” she says. “We give them points.”

“We’re hoping that (Botguy) will get in the other team’s way,” adds team captain Tyron Hamamoto.

The strategy worked time and again. In the championship round, Botguy’s presence prevented Behemoth from collecting at least three Tribbles and dumping more for extra points, and the team won, 23 to 7.

Asked about his opinion of Waiakea’s strategy, Julian Hartline, a Mid-Pacific senior who exhibited good sportsmanship throughout, says, “I wish we had thought of that.”

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