One of Mountain View High School's robotics teams, the Green MacHHHHine, took home a a first place medal at the VEX world championships in Anaheim April 26, placing 20th in the robotics tournament and winning a first prize for their educational video.
There are 6,000 high school robotics teams in VEX leagues worldwide. Of those 6,000, only 430 are invited to compete at the world championships.
At the competition, robots compete with each other in a sports-style tournament, working at first in random pairings during two-on-two matches for about half of the day. After that, they get to choose permanent alliances to compete with for the remainder of the competition.
This year, robots scored points by putting Buckyballs into 12-inch goalposts, which double as a "bridge" for the robots to slide under. They also were required to drive over a 2-inch bump and be able to maneuver 17-inch balls around the court.
For the first 15 seconds, the robots are completely autonomous. After that, teams allow their drivers to control the robots during the game. Green MacHHHHine's driver, Timmy Beckmann, said that due to the number of different tasks the robot had to perform, the design was always changing.
"We experimented with certain wheel bases to allow us to get over the bump, and also different lift mechanisms in order to raise the robot up and down. Our robot changed at every meeting as we added more and more iterations," Beckmann said.
Teams were also able to elect to earn extra points outside of matches by demonstrating that their robot could latch onto and hang from a 40-inch bar, as the Green MacHHHHine's robot was able to do.
"There's a lot of stuff that the robots have to do. You get the challenge at the beginning of the year, and you have to decide how to build your robot to perform all these different aspects of the game," said Irv Kalb, one of the team's mentors.
They placed fourth during the California State Championships, which was not a high enough ranking to propel them to the world championships. However, there were alternate ways to qualify.
Teams are also asked to submit one promotional video for the competition and one educational video as well. The Green MacHHHHine's educational video, Mythbusters: Wheels Vs. Treads, took first place in the world this year, and is what got the Green MacHHHHine their invitation to compete at the world championships. They placed in the top 10 for their promotional video.
Two years ago, their educational video Bill Fly the Robot Guy also took first place in the world. In addition to filming the videos, they also wrote five essays on the topic of how VEX has helped them and created a website.
There are still more awards to be won at both the local and worldwide levels. Called Excellence Awards, they are presented to teams based on speeches and interviews. The Green MacHHHHine team has taken home six local and two worldwide awards in the past four years.
The cost of building the robot were covered through corporate sponsorships and family donations.
"Our budget for building the robot was about on the order of $3,000, which is actually very good, very low for a robotics competition," Irv said. "There are other competitions where a typical robot could cost up to $30,000. We've chosen to be in this league and one of the reasons is the low-cost nature of it."
The Green MacHHHHine team has competed at the VEX world championships in each of the last four years that they have had a team. In 2011 and 2013, they placed in the top 10.
"Being able to go to the world championships four years in a row is an amazing feat," Beckmann said.
According to Robbie Kalb, the team captain and a senior at Mountain View High School, the team begins brainstorming shortly after the next year's project is released in April. They work throughout the summer to design a prototype and prepare for the competitions. Though their first prototype is usually completed shortly after the summer's end, they do not stop working on it until it is almost time for the world championships.
"The robot is never finished. There's always work to do on it. There's always ways to make it better. There's always new things to try, things to perfect," Irv said.
The unique timespan of the program (one year as opposed to nine months for most high school programs) allows for the team to continue improving their robot and fine-tuning for world championships throughout the year.
The team was able to improve its design this year after the first two competitions, switching from a claw-type mechanism, which Irv said was too large, to a six-bar mechanism that extends from the robot when needed and then retracts in order to keep it compact.
"Since the program goes on on all year long, it allows you to iterate your design. You go to a competition with one approach, you see how well it works, and based on how well you do in the competition, you can modify your design," Irv said.
There are six students on the team, and not all of them attend Mountain View High School. Beckmann attends Homestead High School, whose robotics team competes in a different league, and another team member is home-schooled.
The team has four mentors, all with backgrounds in engineering. Though the students are supported by their mentors, the team's philosophy is that the students are the ones who should be driving the project and be primarily responsible for their robot.
The mentors are there to teach and guide the students but the students are the only ones that actually build the robot. So we do all the work, we design it, make the mistakes, learn from it and get to do all the building ourselves. It's really a learning experience for all the students," Robbie said.
All 10 of the team's former members who have graduated and gone on to college decided to major in a field related to robotics, Robbie said.
To see their award-winning videos and learn more about the team, visit their website at www.greenmachhhhine.com.