Local high school teams try to be FIRST in robotics competition in Costa Mesa

Huntington Beach High School team members wheel their robot onto the floor for a practice run as they compete Friday in the Orange County regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In the Hangar at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, high school students watched as robots rushed to fill spaceships with cargo before the next sandstorm arrived.

Well, sort of.

The Orange County regional of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition drew more than 40 teams and their robots.

Teams from Marina, Huntington Beach, Ocean View, Edison and Corona del Mar high schools were in attendance Friday.

This year’s theme is “Destination: Deep Space,” inspired by the lunar landing in July 1969.

The challenge is to have the robots affix plastic “hatch panels” to the sides of the rockets and cargo ships and fill each with orange balls (the cargo). Nearing the end of the match, or the “end game,” robots must try to climb a series of platforms that vary in height, said Eileen Kahn, the FIRST community engagement leader.

“It’s described as ‘the hardest fun you’ll ever have,’” said Mikolaj Karon, a senior and chief engineer for the Ocean View team. “It might seem like a daunting task, but in the end, it’s not that difficult.”

Points are given depending on certain tasks accomplished by the players. The alliance — or group of three teams chosen at random by the organization — with the highest number of points wins.

“It’s not like a ‘BattleBots’ competition. … We don’t allow destruction of other robots,” Kahn said. “It’s more about working with others, and that’s why we have alliances. It’s to really foster the idea of working together.”

At the end of each match, teams are given ranking points. The teams in the top eight by the end of the qualifying rounds move into the elimination round, where they pick two other teams for their alliance to compete with them through playoffs.

The winning alliance will proceed to the championships in Houston. Other teams also may qualify if they receive specific honors such as the Chairman’s Award or Rookie All-Star Award.

Avery Levin from Marina High School in Huntington Beach makes final adjustments on his team's robot during the FIRST Robotics Competition on Friday at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It’s as competitive as any other sport. It’s as fun as any other sport. It’s as challenging as any other sport,” said Matthew Kriesel, a junior and head of wiring and electrical for the Marina team. “They just always think it’s some nerdy robot club that’s not gonna do anything or it’s not important as a sport.

“It’s more important, I would say, because, you know, we’re teaching people STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], programming — things that people could use in real life.”

Each team is given six weeks to build, design and program a robot to meet the challenge with a basic kit provided by the organization.

Entrants are allowed to add components not included in the kit. The more complicated the robot, Kahn said, the more likely that students had to get their own parts.

Outside of a few guidelines regarding height, weight and safety, building the robot is left to the students and their mentors (often teachers or engineers) to figure out.

Athena Wilson of the team Wolfpack Robotics makes adjustments to her robot in the Orange County regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Natasha Jhalani, a sophomore who heads the computer automated design team for Corona del Mar High, said she and her mentor spent two to three days trying to design a 3-D-printed part that ended up not being used in the final version of the robot.

James Perez, a junior at Huntington Beach High and a first-time competitor, said the robot building was a “learning experience.”

“I had no idea how to do so many of the things we’ve done. I’m sure I’m going to be able to use many of them later,” he said. “I’m getting to learn some of the coding stuff. I’m getting to learn how to use some of the chain things. All these different things I didn’t know you could buy or didn’t know existed — it’s like a whole new world. It’s crazy.”

Playoff matches will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, and awards will be handed out beginning at 4:30 p.m. The competition is open to the public at no charge. It also is streamed live on Twitch.