SENIOR JOE PUZZO makes some adjustments to Prospect Mountainís robot during practice time on Feb. 21.
Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
February 29, 2012ALTON — If the Prospect Mountain basketball teams ever find themselves short a player, the first place to look might be just that, FIRST.
The school's FIRST competition team has been hard at work over the last six weeks, developing a robot that can shoot small foam basketballs into rims.
Tuesday, Feb. 21, was the final day the robots could be fine-tuned as the students and advisors prepare for the regional competition, which takes place this coming weekend at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
FIRST features 53 different regional events in both the United States and abroad and though many of the teams at the Manchester competition this weekend will be from New England schools, there is no restriction on how many regional competitions a team can enter, so the Prospect kids are likely to see robots from around the country as they compete for the chance to move on in the competition.
The FIRST season is pretty intense, as the students and advisors have just six weeks to go from nothing to finished.
During the first weekend in January, the Prospect FIRST team joined other teams in a kickoff event, where this year's game was revealed, along with what the court will look like.
This year, the idea is for the robot to pick up eight-inch foam rubber basketballs and put them through basketball hoops, while working together with other teams.
"It's a complex game of basketball for robots," advisor Brian Hikel said.
The court consists of four basketball hoops at each end. The robot's job is to put the ball in the hoop, with the top hoop worth three points, the middle two hoops each worth two points and the bottom hoop worth one point.
There's also a rail and balance beams in the middle and the teams can earn bonus points for ending their match balanced on a beam with another robot.
There are 20 balls in play at one time and each robot can put them in the hoops. The balls are automatically returned to a team member, who is allowed to throw them back into the field of competition, using strategic placement if so desired.
The robots are manned by two drivers, with one moving the robot and the other controlling the shooting.
In the competition, two teams of three robots will meet up with each other. The Prospect team will be randomly matched up with other teams in the qualifying rounds and if they are among the top 24 teams, they earn a spot in the elimination round, where they will draw permanent partners to the end of the competition.
"There are 50 teams and they'll be 50 different strategies," Hikel noted.
The competition, however, is just the culmination of a lot of hard work from the FIRST competitors and their advisors.
Every team has the same amount of time to work on their machine, but everybody looks at things differently.
Hikel noted that on the first day of the season, after the game was revealed, the team came up with its strategy moving forward.
The Prospect team's first strategy was to be sure the robot could pick the balls up off the floor and they went from there.
"It was how do we want to attack this game," Hikel said.
In addition to constructing the robot, the students work with a computer and FIRST's control system, writing code to get the robot to respond to commands and run the way it needs to run.
"It's a smart machine," Hikel said. "As it's picking balls up, it knows there's balls there."
Theresa Puzzo has been a key part of the advisory team, as she is a software engineer (and parent of one of the team members) and has helped the kids on the computer end of things. Physics teacher Joe Derrick and metal work teacher Mark Marceau have also served as advisors and former FIRST competitors Ty Tremblay and Mike Tidd have also returned.
Both Tremblay and Tidd went to WPI and earned robotic engineering degrees after starting with FIRST at Prospect Mountain High School.
"They're in the real world and still addicted to this program," Hikel said. "Because of what we do here, kids get exposed to this and we've had kids who, because of this program, have made career choices.
"When they graduate, they have businesses seeking them out," Hikel said. "People are going to want these kids." He noted that there is more than $14 million in scholarship money available to kids who have gone through the FIRST program.
At this year's competition, Joe Puzzo will be the robot driver and Aaron Russell will be the shooter. The Timber Wolf robot, Highway Bob, has a number of different options for the two to use, as what they need it to do can depend on what their alliance partners have the ability to do.
One unique aspect of the competition is the 15-second autonomous period at the beginning of each game. In that span, the drivers are not allowed to touch their computers, as they have to have a program in place that allows the robot to perform its function without their help.
Once the autonomous period ends, Puzzo and Russell take over the robot and work with the other two robots on their team to put as many balls in the hoop as they can.
Puzzo, who is a senior at Prospect, has been part of the FIRST group for two years and is such a devoted robotics student that he built his own robot in the FIRST offseason.
The Timber Wolves did some tuning up for the regional competition with a mini competition at Nashua South High School on Feb. 18 and put in a strong showing, as the Timber Wolves teamed with a squad from the Upper Valley and another from Clinton, Mass. to take first place overall.
"We were definitely a strong candidate," Hikel said.
Team members Matt Breuer, Joey Leblanc, Matt McGinnis, Brad Bugeida, Garrett St. Laurent and Matt Wajda and advisor Josh Hough joined the aforementioned students and advisors in the competition at Nashua South.
With all the hard work that has gone in to the last six weeks, it was almost a relief when the final day arrived and there was just fine tuning to do, which the team did in a corner of the Prospect Mountain cafeteria.
"All day I thought it was Friday because of the sense of relief I've felt," Hikel joked.
The FIRST competition runs Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3, at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. Spectators are welcome to cheer on the Prospect Mountain team and Highway Bob.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 569-3126