The components for a new robot arrived early in January and signaled the start of another robotics season for the Woodlawn High School TechnoWarriors. The students took six weeks, as many as 300 hours of intense labor after school and on weekends and holidays, to design and build a robot, all while maintaining their school grades.
They tested and retested and practiced until they were certain they had constructed a robot armed for competition in a field that is becoming increasingly more intense as interest builds in the science.
Now they have won local and regional championships and have qualified for a national contest, the FIRST Robotics Competition, where they will try to outmaneuver nearly 90 teams in three days of matches that begin Thursday in St. Louis. FIRST is a Manchester, N.H.-based nonprofit that encourages youngsters' interest in science and technology
"It's almost like March Madness," said Ben Clash, a home-schooled high school senior on the team, referring to the college basketball tournament. "Only it's two losses and you are out."
The team's robot, dubbed Junkyard Warrior for its many recycled parts, has performed well so far. Built with a two-speed transmission and weighing about 120 pounds, it racks up game points for autonomy — it must be programmed to run 10 seconds without human input — as well as for the skill of its drivers, who can race it across the court as it deflects competitors.
"We know it's fast and strong," said Fred Needel, who has mentored the team for more than 10 years, long after his son, Greg, graduated from the school. "I sat on a chair and the robot pushed me across the floor."
Four members from the team qualified for the nationals — Clash and Woodlawn juniors Robert Schell, Tavon Johnson and Timothy Luksic. They have practiced on a carpet-covered area of field at Woodlawn; the competition takes place on a field the size of a basketball court.
Three players work behind a control wall, guiding the robot through its courses.
"It's the biggest rush," said Clash, who drives the wheels. "This is our robot that we spent six weeks building."
Johnson, the team scout, said, "It's all our design."
While Clash drives, Luksic operates the claw, the apparatus that must lift inflatable tubes, carry them across the court and hang them on pegs about the height of a basketball hoop. Schell coaches and watches other players, acting, his teammates say, as their eye in the sky.
"Robert is our programmer and does the software designing for the team," said Robyn Needel, Fred's wife and a fellow mentor. "The fact that the robot could score by itself in the first seconds is all because of Robert."
It takes practice, skill and quick thinking.
"This is not like working on a computer," said Fred Needel, named local FIRST Robotics mentor of the year, the result of his students' nomination and a judging committee of previous honorees. "It's much more intense. You can't hit reset and start over if you run into a wall."
Each match lasts an intense two minutes, 20 seconds. In the last 10 seconds, the team must deploy a mini-robot and race it to the top of a 10-foot pole.
While his teammates compete, Johnson works the stands and the pits as he scouts the competition, some of whom will eventually become allies of the TechnoWarriors in the final matches. As the TechnoWarriors' reputation has grown, many teams want to work with them.
"I look for their overall strategy and the best possible team and the one with the best teamwork," said Johnson.
The mentors all devote long hours to advising and coaching the team. For the Needels, who nearly abandon the family business during the robotics competition season, and the Clash family — Ben's parents and older siblings are also mentors — robotics is the road to a solid future for these students.
"These students are not just building a robot," Fred Needel said. "They are getting involved and staying interested in science, technology, engineering and math."
Robotics' players learn to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, said Robyn Needel.
"This is a sport where everyone can go pro," she said. "These students are in the pipeline for great jobs in engineering and technology."
NASA Goddard is sponsoring TechnoWarriors this year and helping to defray many of the expenses. Other engineering and tech companies are involved in team sponsorship, knowing they may be assisting their future employees, Fred Needel said.
The team has shipped its robot to St. Louis and will be traveling there soon. They will take along lots of spare parts, just in case they or another team needs something. They will dress in their camouflage T-shirts, printed with TechnoWarriors, when they take to the field and play for their school and their team.
"The school supports sports more, but we have won more than all the other teams," said Johnson. "Everyone knows Woodlawn Robotics."
After St. Louis, they will show off a bit, taking the robot to middle schools, libraries and Goddard Space Flight Center's Open House.
But for now, they are focused on the competition.
"We are ready," Clash said. "We are working together well and winning."