Sussex County students get robotic

Robots aren’t just for mad scientists and Jedi knights anymore.

Ashley Conroe, an Indian River High School senior, formed the Retro Robots team to compete in Delaware’s own robotics tournament.

Coastal Point •  R. Chris Clark: Students navigate their robots through an obstacle course.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark
Students robots collect raquetballs and bring them back behind the line.
Conroe enjoyed playing with LEGOs as a child, so a few years ago, she asked the Georgetown 4-H club to begin a robotics program. The 4-H sponsored Conroe’s team, which includes Travis Waller of Georgetown, Angela Lagano of Gumboro and Carson Williamson of Bridgeville.

The students began working with smaller LEGO Mindstorm robot kits and did so for more than a year before discovering the Diamond State FIRST Tech Challenge. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) invited 30 northeast teams, from elementary to high school, to build and program robots that complete various tasks.

The high school teams programmed machines to complete at the FIRST Tech Challenge at University of Delaware in Newark on Jan. 28. This year’s theme was “Bowled Over!” in which robots had two minutes to roll bowling balls, topple and restack plastic crates, collect racquetballs and deposit them into a goal zone. Some tasks were directed by a team member and remote control, while others are performed autonomously, based on the robot’s own programming and sensors.

Coastal Point •  R. Chris Clark: Angela Lagano, grade 10; Travis Waller grade 12; Carson Williamson, grade 7; and Ashley Conroe, grade 12, show off their robot.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Angela Lagano, grade 10; Travis Waller grade 12; Carson Williamson, grade 7; and Ashley Conroe, grade 12, show off their robot.Sussex County’s only robotics team doesn’t have the engineering sponsors that students in Wilmington or Wallops Island, Va., might have because of their proximity to DuPont or Wallops Flight Facility. In fact, the Retro Robots are still a fledgling team, having only competed for two years now. But that doesn’t deter them from their mission.

They fundraised and obtained grant money from 4-H to purchase Tech Challenge-approved materials. That includes metal equipment and the unique “brain,” a small computer they must program to instruct the robot.

But the tournament involves more than just programming. Teams form relationships and alliances throughout the day. Partners in one round may be opponents in the next.

The Retro Robots partnered their own robot’s strength in moving bowling balls with other teams’ strength in picking up racquetballs.

“The nice thing is, although you have alliances and people against you, you’re not allowed to touch or hurt their robot in any way,” Conroe said. “The people there are really nice, and they’ll help you if you need help.”

“Gracious professionalism” is the competition’s good sportsmanship policy. Teams aren’t allowed to hide their robots from observation and are encouraged to lend a hand, bolt or battery to teams in need.

“It’s not really about winning. It’s about participation and learning, and so forth,” said Greg Conroe, Ashley’s father and coach. “Even scholarships that they offer are based that way. It doesn’t matter if you win the competition.”

On game day, the Retro Robots’ machine had some difficulty picking up signals, so they did some troubleshooting and on-the-spot critical thinking, all on a tight schedule.

“It was a really good experience for the kids to learn,” said Annmarie Conroe, Ashley’s mother and co-coach. She remembers the students asking, “Where’s the instructions?” when they first constructed a robot years ago. “You can just see the growth in them in the last few years,” she said.

Although the Retro Robots’ machine worked better in practice than in competition, the team still pulled out a victory. They won the Service Award for collecting 133 pounds of food for the Food Bank of Delaware – another area of learning sparked by the creative call of competitive robotics.