roboracersAUSTIN RAMSEY • Staff Writer | Murray Ledger and Times

The joint Murray Independent and Calloway County Schools student robotics team is gearing up for another season after competing among the top 400 international teams last month at the FIRST Robotics World Championships.

The team, dubbed the Robo-Racers is coached by both Calloway County High School and Murray High School coaches and funded partly by a partnership with the Calloway County 4-H Youth Development Program.

The field of competition is organized by FIRST Robotics, a not-for-profit student leadership and development organization started out of a passion for science and technology. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Dean Kamen, founder of such inventions as the insulin pump and the Segway, developed the idea for FIRST in 1989, and began competition in 1992.

The premise behind each “season” is that teams from all of the world will wait for a date in mid-December when a new competitive task is announced via a global streamed online broadcast. Each task is a sport, of sorts, but played by small robots that the student-led teams design and build almost entirely by themselves. One year the sport was a robotic version of soccer, complete with obstacles on the field. This year the task was titled “Ariel Assist” wherby robots played a rudimentary form of basketball with large exercise balls on teams of three robots called alliances.

That sounds simple enough, but the competition is brutal, while surprisingly cordial. Students, led by private or school-sponsored coaches, design their robots from basic kits that each team can pick up in early January. From the time teams can pick up their kits to the time the first competitions are hosted is about six weeks. That’s called the six-week build period. Science and technology-savvy high school students with the help of professionals (like NASA engineers, for example) design their robots to perform all or some of the tasks until the first … FIRST competition begins and all the robots are bagged and not to be touched until they’re used in whatever competitions their teams choose to enter.

Limits are set on how much money each team can spend on outside parts, so bigger and better-funded teams, like those sponsored by schools set up solely for FIRST Robotics compeition, don’t have too far of an advantage over smaller, more rural teams like the Robo-Racers.

That kind of equal playing field gave the Murray-Calloway team the right technology to pair up with two larger regional teams, forming a winning alliance at the 2014 Smoky Mountains Regional FIRST Robotics Compeition in February.

As Joint-Coach Bryant Harrison said, the team’s launch into the World Championships in St. Louis last month was a whole new world.jh

“Just the fact that we were able to see some of the teams we did see was truly amazing,” Harrison said. “And as far as our robot goes, we found that our design – despite our lack of experience (only four years) – was one of the best shooters in the world.”

The team came out in about 74th place in it’s division of four, but Coach Jeff Slaton said it was the experience that made the trip worthwhile.

“We have a long way to go, but we had teams – teams that have inspired us, teams that we have watched videos of to learn from – we had those teams come into our pit area and ask us questions. We’re goint to use this as a springboard to launch into our 2015 season.”

That’s a season team captain Lucas Reck is looking forward to quite a bit. It will be his last season as a Robo-Racer and he said the experience that he was able to take from the World Championships were enough to better the team and himself.

“It changes our philosophy about how we build our robots,” he said. “We need to be better prepared, more durable and consistently performing, and we will be.”

The team was able to make the trip with the help of local sponosrs, but more money will be needed for next season. Slaton said he hopes the team can pick up an organization or local civic group that can help garner support.

“We can’t perpetually ask our community for money,” he said. “And we know that.”

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