Kent-Meridian students use technology to develop soccer-playing robot

Kent-Meridian junior Ta Say plays soccer, but he has never faced an opponent quite like the 18-inch-high device in front of him. That's because there has never been a soccer player quite like the robot that Say, 18, and his fellow members of the Kent-Meridian Robotics team has built to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition next month in Seattle.

Kent-Meridian Robotics Team members Owen Meaker

Kent-Meridian Robotics Team members Owen Meaker

Kent-Meridian junior Ta Say plays soccer, but he has never faced an opponent quite like the 18-inch-high device in front of him.

That’s because there has never been a soccer player quite like the robot that Say, 18, and his fellow members of the Kent-Meridian Robotics team has built to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition next month in Seattle.

Instead of feet to kick and run, the robot contains four wheels that allow it to roll not only forward and back but skid across the floor sideways and a “whacker” to knock the ball through the goals on the field being constructed for the competition.

It’s the first year Kent-Meridian has sent a team to the competition, held annually at Key Arena, and the team members all said they were drawn to the club by the idea of building robots.

“I’d never seen this before,” Say said.

“Everything about it was different,” said Willard Brown, 15. “I have no experience building robots.”

According to K-M welding and engineering teacher Rob Green, that is the whole point.

“The robot is kind of the lure to get them involved,” he said.

This year, teams in the competition will play a game called “Breakaway,” a soccer-like game in which teams of robots will work together to score goals on a 27-foot-by-54-foot field that is filled with obstacles such as bumps and tunnels.

The robots must function autonomously for 15 seconds and then the students take over, driving them with remote controls and trying to score goals. There is also an extra points option for teams whose robots can do a “chin-up” on a bar on the course, but because it is their rookie year, K-M opted to focus on the main challenge.

“We elected to pass on the chin-up,” Green said. “We’re going straight Pele.”

The majority of the parts for the robot, as well as a small computer to control the device, were supplied by FIRST, but teams are allowed to add an additional $3,000 to their robots.

Parts in the kit include motors, transmission, wheels, wiring and the remote and rules and descriptions of the each competition are kept under wraps until January, when the challenge is revealed and each team has six weeks to design and build a robot to complete that challenge.

K-M’s robot is a short, rectangular device with a plexiglass top and four separate motors controlling each wheel, a design choice that gives them additional maneuverability.

Feb. 23 was deadline for shipping the robots to FIRST, where they will stay until the competition begins March 25-27. Teams from all around the Puget Sound and the state will be competing.

The K-M kids, who have not yet picked a name for their team (they are going with “Team 3221m,” their official designation) or their robot, are ready to go out to prove something.

“We want to show that K-M is not a loser school,” said team member Annie Atkinson, 18.

Atkinson said she joined the team because “it gave us more options” later in life and has taught her essential skills such as time management and teamwork, “which is essential to daily life.”

Owen Meaker, 17, joined the group after his father, mentor Barry Meaker, worked last year with a team in Puyallup. Meaker said he spent a lot of time with the team.

“That kind of got me interested in doing it,” he said.

Owen Meaker is handling most of the programming for the team, using a graphical interface to design the code to make sure that when someone uses the joystick to steer the robot, it moves in the right direction. Though it is a new language for him to code in, Meaker said he was getting the hang of it, despite a variable being wrong Friday that led to the robot’s camera being aimed the wrong way.

“Once you get the hang of it it’s pretty simple,” he said.

This year, green said the team is setting a “fairly limited goal” of just making sure the robot does what it is supposed to do and functions in the way the team intended.

Maybe next year they will start to get a little fancier, he said.

But for the kids on the team it is not about winning; it’s more about being involved.

“I just wanted to build robots,” Brown said with a shrug.

So what did they learn?

“It’s easier than it looks,” Atkinson said.

And maybe that’s the whole point.

For more information on the FIRST Robotics competition visit http://www.usfirst.org/


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