Robots showcase students' technical skills, teamwork

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Tharun Somasundar knows it’s a long shot. He estimates he’s one of more than 2,000 who have applied to the Boston University seven-year medical program and that only 20 applicants will be accepted. Not quite as much as a long shot is his application to Stanford University, where he would enroll in a pre-med program. And if that doesn’t work out, the Hendricken senior has applied to a long list of other institutions. His goal: to become a doctor and to join Doctors Without Borders.

But on Saturday, Somasundar was diagnosing mechanical and programming issues. So was Pilgrim High School teacher Larry West.

Somasundar is captain of the Hawks robotic team. West is the coach of the Sons of Liberty team from Pilgrim. Both Somasundar and West and their teams were at the 11th FIRST (for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge held at the automotive campus of the New England Institute of Technology in Warwick. They were two of 32 teams that had qualified over three rounds for the final event that with its upbeat music, overhead wide screens and play-by-play coverage rivaled the best of professional athletic events.

FIRST was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.

West knows that it works. The Sons of Liberty, a name selected on Warwick’s role in the burning of the Gaspee in 1772 that led up to the American Revolution, consists of eight members. Six are from Pilgrim and two are from junior high school. They have been working on their robot since September and were at Pilgrim until 10 p.m. Friday making sure it was ready to go.

As it turned out, the Pilgrim team was among the first in the ring where competing robots cornered colored balls – the robots were programmed to recognize and retrieve balls – and then shoot them through baskets grouped in the ring center. Robots are also programmed to make color distinctions and press a lit up button mounted on the ring wall that randomly changed color. Matches have a 30-second period where the robot runs itself, followed by two minutes of driver control. Referees and judges oversee the matches with points being awarded for accomplishing various tasks.

The Sons of Liberty were put to the test even before the match started. They had difficulty in establishing communications with their robot that showed signs of life with its winking lights but refused to respond to commands. Nick Leland and Cameron Olsen performed under the stress of onlookers anxious for the competition to start. West looked on as the team worked out the problem and gave a thumbs-up to David Price, whose play-by-play call was akin to the start of the Indy 500. The teams and the crowd were revved up and ready.

Somasundar found a parallel between robotics and his interest in medicine, noting that robots are employed to perform surgery and the precise programming required to run these machines is what students learn with the tech challenge. He also mentioned how physics come into play as teams must calculate trajectories and velocity for the robot to accurately fling a ball into a basket.

“Everything needs to be perfect,” he said.

Both Hendricken and Pilgrim made it to the semifinals. The teams were selected by the East Greenwich Avengers, which were one of the high-scoring teams in the preliminary rounds, to form an alliance. The final match was between the Scituate Greenhorns alliance with Renegade Robots of Burrillville and Providence Career and Tech High and the Prout School alliance with Shea Senior High and Slater Junior High. The Scituate alliance came out the winner. Four teams were qualified to go on to the nationals: Aquidneck Island, Scituate, Fellowship Robotics and Burrillville.

Erin Flynn of NEIT, who has been running the FIRST Tech Challenge for 11 years, says the event grows every year. She credits a team of more than 30 volunteers with creating the energy and excitement that makes the competition and the coaches like West at Pilgrim and Robert Rakovic at Hendricken for inspiring the students. But then, even robots need their engines.

Flynn drives the show.

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