Published Date Written by Adam DrapchoGILFORD — Last year, the Gilford High School robotics team set a new high water mark for itself by winning its way to the national competition, held in St. Louis, Mo. Having had a taste, the team now wants to earn its way back, and will attempt to do so beginning this weekend.
The GHS robotics team has signed up for two regional competitions this year, the first is being held Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Manchester. Then, at the beginning of April, the team will travel to Lewiston, Maine for another shot at a ticket to St. Louis. Team mentor Chris Drever said the team faces some challenges this year that it didn't have last year. Still, he's optimistic about his team's chances.
The Eagles started off the year with a deficit of experience. Last year's success was propelled by a team heavy with seniors. This year, the team's average age is skewed in the other direction. There's only one senior on the robotics team — co-captain Dominic Jude — and five freshmen. "We're training up the freshmen, we have some very good freshmen, but we lost a lot of experience last year," said Drever.
Complicating the team's inexperience has been this winter's weather, which robbed the team of precious build time. As a result, Drever said the team hasn't had the time to refine its robot as much as has been possible in years past.
The challenge for this year's First Robotics competition is titled "Ultimate Ascent," which features teams of robots, randomly assembled from different competing teams, working together to score points. The robots will first score by autonomously throwing or placing discs in target slots, then, in the second round, team members will remotely control their robots, again with the goal of getting discs into targets. In the final round, robots can score points by climbing a three-tier tower placed in the arena.
The robot created by the Gilford team is capable of throwing the discs into a target as far as 19 feet away. However, what the team thinks will set its invention apart is its ability to climb to the top of the tower, an additional challenge they think many teams will ignore. As co-captain Lindsey Essaff explained, a robot that reaches the top of the tower will score as many points as are possible in both of the first two rounds.
"I think if we have a climber that can climb to the top of the tower every time, we'll do pretty well," Essaff said.
A junior, Essaff said she had no interest in robotics prior to joining the team. She tried it out only on the insistence of a couple of friends who, like her, were also working to help build a set for the drama club. "A few of my friends were like, 'I'm dragging you by your ear, you're coming to robotics.' I never left," she recalled. The daughter of a machinist — her father Peter has since joined the team as a mentor — Essaff specializes in the mechanical operations of the robot and management of 25-member team.
That team has been working doggedly for the past six weeks to conceive and create its robot. Students completed virtually all of the robot's design and construction, as well as a vast majority of the computer coding. With the competition near, the team is working on finishing touches to the robot, including an improved mechanism for throwing the discs. The team has worked about four hours after each school day and has put in 12-hour days on the weekends. While the rest of the school has been silent during vacation week, robotics team members have been busy.
If the team is successful at either regional competition, Drever said, another challenge will appear. Last year, it cost about $27,000 to take the team to St. Louis, money that the team doesn't have at the ready. However, he's hopeful that businesses, organizations and individuals will step forward to help the team again, as they did last year. Major contributors last year included SAIC, BAE Systems, the Town of Gilford, Plymouth State University, Meredith Savings Bank, Gilford Environmental Endowment Foundation, New Hampshire Ball Bearings, Gilford Rotary Club, Cactus Jack's & T-Bones, Eptam Plastics, Patrick's Pub & Eatery, McDonald's, Fratello's, Sal's Pizza, Kitchen Cravings and Papa Gino's.
For Essaff joining the robotics team has been a highlight of her high school career. "I've learned so much doing this. It's not just robotics, it's a huge team-playing thing. You literally can't get by without everyone." Asked about her desire to return to the national championship, she said, "I would love to go back to St. Louis. It was so much fun last year. We saw the teams that won the championship, that's the level that you want to aspire to. It was really nice to see that higher level, to see what we want to aim for."
CAPTION for GHS Robotics in AA:
Gilford robotics team members Drake Parker, Lindsey Essaff and Dave McCutcheon discuss ways to improve the design of their robot's disc-throwing mechanism. The team begins regional competitions this weekend and hopes to earn a return trip to the national competition. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)