PEPPERELL -- For the first time, the North Middlesex Regional High School robotics team is headed to the west coast to see if they have constructed the world's best student-built robot. The Patribots, comprised of five students, have qualified to compete in the VEX Robotics High School World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., April 17 through April 20.
Thousands of teams from across the globe will be competing, said club adviser James Landry.
"Teams from all over the world come. It takes three days just to get through it. It's pretty intense," he said.
Each year's competition is a game of sorts. The purpose of this year's competition is to pick up bean bags arranged around the field and place them in troughs raised 18 inches above the ground. The game is played in rounds of two on two, with a total of four robots on the field. Whoever ends up with the most beanbags wins the round. Meanwhile, judges are gauging driving and programming skills.
The team will be fundraising for their trip and are accepting donations. They have sent out letters to local businesses looking for corporate sponsors.
"With such a small group, it can be really kind of hard to get us to any event," said Landry.
The team qualified through a recent competition, the New Hampshire VRC Championships on Dec. 8. Although they were knocked out in the final round, the Patribots pulled fourth place out of 57 teams and won an excellence award for winning in the subcategories
Although the team has been established at the school for four years, this is the first year that they have been seriously competing. Last year, they went to three local competitions throughout the school year; this year, they've already been to four and have lined up several more. Out of the four that they've already participated in, they've won two and made it into the finals of the other two.
The students have been working on the robot since the beginning of the school year, completing the original design in three months. But it's a work in progress, said the team members.
"This is probably our sixth design," said senior Karl Sundberg, indicating the remote-controlled device sitting before him.
"It keeps being changed; it's constantly being built," said junior Andre Imperiali.
VEX has basic kits and accessories; teams with more funding are able to purchase more materials, but more money doesn't always equal a better robot.
"A lot of it is how creative you are more so than who has the most money," said Landry.
The robot, which the team refers to as the Patribot, sits on a six-wheeled rectangular base approximately one and a half feet long. Wires run from its batteries, motor and transmission all the way up through the extendable crane-like neck and into the mouth of the machine, a roller that scoops up beanbags and spits them back out into a raised basin.
It all started with a drawing. First, the team came up with a rough sketch of how they wanted the robot to look. From there, they created several computer-aided designs. The team chose the design that seemed to be the most efficient.
"Then we just started building," said Sundberg, who has been on the team since it began.
The process involved a lot of trial and error.
"We came up with a rough prototype that we would just play around with to see what the strengths were, what the weaknesses were," said Sundberg.
Since its first conception, the robot's neck and mouth have been modified and the speed has been doubled. The only remaining kinks involve the motors, several of which have been burned out and replaced.
Aside from that, though, the team is confident in their robot and in their own abilities to drive it.
"Right now, our robot is as good as any robot in New England," said Landry. "Amongst competing teams from New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, we're right up there with the best of them."
The team has come a long way since it was first developed four years ago. Landry, who teaches the robotics class in school, wanted to offer a venue for kids who have a desire to be more involved in the program.
At first, the team was not highly competitive, only participating in one event as a culmination of the year's work.
"In the past, we were hoping just not to finish last. It's a learning curve. It took us four years of work and playing around with this stuff to get to this point," said Landry.
At the beginning, he said, the goal of the team was to have one robot complete by the end of the year. As the process became more streamlined and the robots got completed earlier and earlier, the students began participating in more and more competitions.
"The kids got the fever," he said.
But the competitions are, by nature, unique from competitive sporting events. Competitors from across the globe communicate frequently with problems and solutions. One of the team members is currently communicating with a team in New Zealand.
"Despite it being a competitive thing, most of the advisers and people realize it's an educational thing. If you have a problem, you post it on forums and things and get 10 answers from people trying to help you out. Education comes first. I never met a team that wasn't willing to help you if you had problem," said Landry.
Meanwhile, the team is nervous, but excited for the competition.
"This is a big achievement for the school and the team," said Sundberg. "I never thought we'd make it this far, but now that we have, it's impressive."