Robot places second internationally

The second-place robot in the world is kind of a jerk.

Robot No. 803 doesn’t just do its main job in competitions — picking up tennis balls and depositing them on an elevated “bridge.” Thanks to a versatile design, the nameless “bot” can also scoop up the winnings of opposing machines and knock them right back onto the floor.

“Our bot is highly defensive,” Huntington Beach High School senior Waleed Afzal said. “It’s designed to get its hand in there and take the balls back out. A lot of teams got very mad at us. They started going around asking if it’s even legal.”

Judges called that move “de-scoring” your opponents. And it’s part of what won a team of Huntington Beach High School students — all enrolled in the school’s new engineering class — second prize in an international robot-building competition this month.

Using parts purchased with money from the school PTSA and local technical education grants, the students worked numerous hours for months to get a winning machine, teacher Kevin Crossett said. They stayed up late nights, spent nearly every day of their spring break working, and dealt with countless bugs and shipping delays, but the robot slowly came together.

In the end, they snagged second out of nearly 100 teams at the Vex Robotics World Championship, put on this month in Northridge by a robot parts and design company.

“I hope I get another team like this,” Crossett said. “This group of students, with this dynamic — I don’t know how often it comes around.”

Competitions like these teach students more than simple building techniques, said OCC professor Robert Costaño, who drums up interest in robot building around the state. A winning team learns how to organize large projects, use entrepreneurial skills, and bridge the gap between idea and reality, he said.

That’s right in line with the goals of the engineering class, said Crossett, a veteran of the private sector. His class, funded by the Coastline Regional Occupational Program, teaches skills that get teens valuable experience for careers in technical fields, he said.

“It’s all problem-solving based,” he said.

Students said they did lots of problem solving between matches, saying they were constantly rebuilding their bot after every matchup, even reprogramming it on the competition floor.

“We were running around with the cord hooked to the laptop in between rounds,” team member Nilayam Patel said.

It paid off. The group sailed through early rounds. It wasn’t till they ran into the winning alliance of Chinese schools that they slowed down, Afzal said.

“It looked like a spiderweb over there,” he said. “You didn’t even know how it worked. Hitting the Chinese bot was like running straight into a wall.”

But the team did even better than they thought, Costaño told them. The No. 1 robots appeared to have some graduate-level designs despite being run by middle schoolers, he said.

“Some of those designs involved some very sophisticated things taught not even at the baccalaureate level,” he said. “Their coaches or mentors clearly helped out. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have the ideas. But [the Huntington Beach] team did it all themselves.”

Crossett said he dreams of making technical education at Huntington Beach High School as famous as the Academy for the Performing Arts, preparing students for careers in a booming field. Jobs in robotics and technology are a major part of the local economy, Constaño said.

In the meantime, all the students who built the winning machine say they want to take more classes on robotics, and have hopes of entering careers where they can work on the same kinds of problems.

“It’s got to be engineering,” Afzad said. “It’s got to be something that involves building things and making them better.”


MICHAEL ALEXANDER may be reached at (714) 966-4618 or at michael.alexander@latimes.com.

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