By STEVEN NALLEY
The most important part of making the Armstrong Middle School Gladiators’ robot work correctly is lining it up correctly from the start.
All of the steps in the robot’s procedure are pre-programmed with a presumed starting point and trajectory in mind. If the robot is off the mark by a fraction of an inch or degree, at first, it will only bump the LEGO models it interacts with. Soon, though, those bumps become collisions. Eventually, those collisions can topple the robot.
Now, the Gladiators now face the pressure of building their robot to succeed on a global stage.
Beginning Thursday, the AMS Gladiators will compete in the FIRST LEGO League international competition at the University of Southern Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, Fla.
The team of Montario Montgomery, Lucas Elder, Bryton Heiselt, Patrick Bell and Navin Solomon earned their ticket to Florida by placing second overall at the state level earlier in the year. Montgomery said he doesn’t mind the pressure.
“It mentally challenges us and shows us a different way of finding solutions,” Montgomery said. “We have been perfecting our whole game plan since our last competition.”
Teacher Jackie Wilt said seeing the students challenged to degrees they have never been challenged before is her favorite part of AMS robotics.
“(Other) things come easy to them, and this program pushes them,” Wilt said. “They really have to use a lot of critical thinking and problem solving skills.”
Wilt said the competition brings 64 teams together, about half of which come from the U.S. and half of which come from other countries around the world, including Japan, China, Germany, South Africa, the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, the Cayman Islands, France and Spain. She said the Gladiators will share a booth with a team from Japan; the two teams and their robots will work together on a project called the Blind Pirates Mission.
Solomon said he looks forward to meeting fellow students from around the world, but Montgomery said the program has already helped him meet new friends.
Montgomery said he and Bell are now close friends, and if not for the robotics program, Bell said their friendship may not have happened.
“We didn’t really have any classes together before this,” Bell said. “I (also) like programming the robots, modifying the robots to your liking.”
The competition works by placing the robot on a field of interactive LEGO obstacles tied to 16 missions.
In the time since the state competition, Wilt said the team has improved its robot’s performance from eight successful missions to 12.
Heiselt said all the missions are themed around food safety and protecting food from contamination. For instance, one task calls for the robot to collect LEGO bacteria models in a truck bed without spilling them, and another calls for it to bring a LEGO rat down a chute into that truck bed. Solomon said the team also has to conduct a food-safety based research project, and it chose to test refrigerators’ ability to preserve ham.
“We only found 14 out of 34 refrigerators that were at the right temperature,” Solomon said.
The FIRST LEGO League may have serious real-world applications, but Heiselt said it is also serious fun.
“I like having (robotics) as a class,” Heiselt said. “School is so stressful. It’s fun to have a class where you can just do what you like and have fun.”
Heiselt said he is grateful for support from the nine sponsors the team has garnered since the state-level competition: Camgian Microsystems, SemiSouth, Copy Cow, Southwire, the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University, the Tissue Research Center of MSU, Burkhalter Rigging, the Starkville School Board and the Starkville Foundation for Public Education.
He said the team is also grateful for support from Wilt, the team’s parents, fellow students and the Shadow Ninjas, another FIRST LEGO League team at AMS that did not advance past the state level.
Wilt said the Shadow Ninjas have provided hundreds of party favor bags for the Gladiators to distribute at the competition.