“Elegant” isn’t usually a word used to describe a robot.
But a beautifully streamlined, 24-pound wood-and-metal machine designed and built by Holy Cross’ robotics team was dubbed just that – “Most Elegant” – at last December’s “South’s BEST” regional robotics championship at Auburn University.
The unnamed Holy Cross robot, which resembles a mechanical arm, was designed as a working “crane” that can be told by its engineers to retrieve, carry and flip objects with its pincer-like hand.
In addition to being named “Most Elegant,” the Holy Cross robot also earned fourth place overall in the regional competition of 56 teams hailing from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana.
This year’s robotic challenge involved building a robot that could complete specific tasks that simulated the construction of a computer. The robot had to collect, move and place items small objects that represented transistors, gates and other components.
“They had these cubes representing the pieces of a circuit board and you had to place those into certain positions on the board,” explained Holy Cross team member Mason Macaluso, a seventh grader, noting that extra points were awarded if the robot flipped the pieces before placing them in the desired location.
Another task had the robot moving color-coded coat hangers from the playing field to an elevated rack of hooks – to simulate the precise sequencing of computer code.
“Whatever gets us the most points, we design our robot to do that task in the shortest amount of time,” Mason said.
But how did the Holy Cross robot manage to be so “elegant” while performing these meticulous tasks?
To help their robot move smoothly across the playing field, the team, composed of 25 students in grades five through 12, equipped it with a metal rod that when unfolded, acted as an all-important counterweight.
“There was a side of our crane that put too much stress on the motor, so we added a pole to the other side of it so (the robot) could move more swiftly and take the stress off the motor,” said seventh-grade team member Blake Ziegler. “I think that probably added some elegance,” Blake speculated, adding that overworked motors tend to make a robot jerk or lag – a characteristic referred to in robotics as “shuddering.”
Each fall, schools that choose to compete in BEST robotics receive an identical bag of raw materials, filled with plywood, sheets of metal, screws and motors. The challenge – and the fun, members say – is to create a robot of the team’s own design, guided only by the tasks its machine will be expected to perform at competition.
At Holy Cross, the robotics team, led by moderator Dale Turner, builds their competition robots in a classroom resembling a carpentry shop. The boys learn to work safely with equipment, such as band saws for the cutting of wood and metal, a drill press, a cross saw, a table saw and sanders.
Turner’s robotics students meet weekly after school and on Saturdays.
“We have six weeks to design the robot and have a finished product,” said Turner, who also teaches math and pre-engineering at Holy Cross and coaches its swim team.
Turner said the team had high expectations going into the 2013 Auburn contest, having won second place overall in the previous year’s regional competition. In 2012, Turner’s students had to design and build a robotic “space elevator” tasked with gathering and discarding “space waste” and moving the components of an imaginary space station from earth to outer space.
Turner said his team’s recent fourth-place finish is remarkable, considering that things went awry during the first round of finals: a key bolt holding a motor in place came loose.
“He had performed flawlessly (up to that time),” Turner said, noting the team worked as a pit crew to remedy the problem. “It only took us three minutes to get it fixed but the damage was done. We lost almost an entire round of points,” he said.
Still, Turner was proud of his students’ grace under pressure. “No one got discouraged,” he said. “They just fixed it and moved on.”
Another confidence tester is built into the competition: In addition to competing in the timed rounds of robotic tasks, teams also must set up a booth on their robot and make a 15-minute marketing presentation to judges explaining their robot’s engineering – as though they were making a sales pitch to a company.
To qualify for the Auburn regionals, Holy Cross placed first in the Oct. 19 local contest, held at St. Mary’s Dominican High. Two other Louisiana teams qualified for regionals: St. Scholastica Academy and Delhi High in Delhi, La.
BEST – Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology – is a non-profit educational endeavor that offers free assistance to schools interested in starting a robotics program.