What happens when you give a handful of teenage boys liberal access to a stuffy basement room in a school library? I found out one recent Friday afternoon.
Friends School students had the day off for teachers’ meetings but, at 3:30pm, four Friends Upper School students greeted me in their “work room.” You guessed it: a stuffy basement room in the Upper School Library. A quick sweep of the place—carelessly strewn half-empty pizza boxes, ruffled hair, and even some bare feet—told me these guys were serious about their work. They’d been allowed to occupy the space for six hours, starting at 10:00am, but they looked like they were just getting warmed up. The project at hand? Tweaking Phyllis.
Phyllis is the winning robot developed by one of Friends’ two robotics teams. Sophomore Ginno Geocadin and juniors Noah Todd, Michael Latman, and Ryan Frank created her. On February 9, 2013, the budding engineers placed first in the Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Robotics Regional Qualifier, beating out dozens of other high school robotics teams from Maryland—including the other Friends robotics team, whose members include juniors Augie Calabresi, Willem Beeson, and Santiago Loane.
This second team, who created the robot Lana, finished an impressive second in the regional competition. Lana may be sitting out the next round, but her makers will be joining forces with Team Phyllis as they head for the next round of competition.
This Saturday, February 23, 2013, Friends’ robotics team plans to showcase Phyllis’ skill once again, this time at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, where they’ll battle it out in the Maryland FTC State Championships. It won’t be pretty or graceful.
When folded up, Phyllis is an 18-by-18 cubic foot of contorted metal. Unfurled, she doesn’t blink or wink or have any human-like characteristics. “We’ve strayed from giving her arms,” said junior Noah Todd, although Phyllis does require the use of an appendage-like body part to get the job done.
The job is a kinetics version of ring toss, much like the game you may have played as a kid, with big fat plastic rings that you attempt to place on upright pegs. Just as little kids tend to crowd around the pegs and push and shove as they vie for position near the peg, so too do the robots in these competitions.
“It’s not BattleBots® exactly. But [the robots] are allowed to make contact with one another. Successful teams will be able to respond to adversity, overcome obstacles and repair, innovate and engineer throughout the day in order to keep their robots on top,” said David Heath, Friends Upper School math teacher and robotics club advisor, in a press release.
The robots or, rather, their creators who manipulate them from across the room, are not allowed to pin, ram, or flip competing robots, according to Todd. In other words, they have to play nice. And though the stakes can be serious—teams who make it to the National championships vie for 32 million dollars worth of scholarship money—these guys don’t seem overly concerned about the end result.
“We think of this as really fun. Generally, we come here for recreation,” Todd said.