San Diego robotics team headed to World Championships

The San Diego-based RoBowties robotics team is headed to the World Championships in St. Louis, Missouri in April, after winning big at the West Coast Super Regionals in Oakland, California over the Easter weekend.

Comprised of high school students from La Jolla High, The Bishop’s School, High Tech High in Point Loma, and Maranatha Christian School in 4S Ranch, the RoBowties compete in FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics competitions, and made their way to the West Coast Super Regionals. The team includes Max Sun, Anna Azeka, Owen Gallahue, Isabelle Ho, Erik Holm, Alex Azeka and Macky Broido.

According to parent Mark Broido, more than 60 San Diego teams qualified for the Regional championships, held Feb. 27 in Carmel Valley. The teams were judged on their robot design, engineering notebook, community service and gracious professionalism. In addition to judging, the teams and their robots had a series of competitions in two-and-a-half-minute periods, during which time they attempted to complete specific challenges.

The top four teams advanced to the West Coast Super Regionals, where team RoBowties won the PTC Design Award, to qualify for the World Championships. The award recognizes design elements of the robot that are both functional and aesthetic, which show creativity. For team RoBowties, creativity also shined through their SteamPunk uniforms and team booth, which was inspired by the clock tower overlooking Paris in the 2011 movie "Hugo." (Their robot is also named Hugo.)

For the West Coast Super Regionals, team parent Richard Ho said the students had to program “Hugo” to move across a 12-foot by 12-foot field, pick up and move an object, and climb two mountain-like structures. During each round, Hugo had to be able to move autonomously for a period of time, then by remote control for a period of time.

Ho explained, via e-mail, “The team designed and fabricated a low-and-lean robot meant to keep a low center of gravity when climbing up the rugged and steep mountains of the FTC challenge. It has a color sensor and a gyroscopic sensor to guide it during the 30-second autonomous phase of each round, and during the remote control phase, it excels at picking up the scoring blocks from the field and depositing them into the goals.”

When it comes to approaching a challenge, Bishop’s student Gallahue said talking it out with the team is key. “The first thing we do is sit down and discuss the specific task that needs to be performed (in this case climbing, picking something up, etc.) and then we talk about the mechanisms needed to complete those tasks.”

Further, they talk about how to make each piece the most efficient and sized to travel, as each robot must fit within certain size requirements, though it can “grow,” once on the playing field. “We need each piece to be multi-functional, so once we get an idea and the mechanisms figured out, we brainstorm and prototype materials,” he said.

Using 3D printing and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, the team designed the pieces that would ultimately make up their robot. “I love taking an idea as a group and making it a physical model to see how hardware and software can interact. It’s a magical moment when you see a robot working,” Gallahue said.

Macky Broido of La Jolla High, added that “there is just something special” about developing an idea as a team and then testing it. “I’ve been with robotics leagues for several years and when we got more advanced, I wanted to move on to something bigger, so I joined RoBowties and competed with the team for the last few years,” Broido said.

Many on the team started young, using Lego Mindstorm software to learn the coding basics and programming. As Team Captain Isabelle Ho (daughter of Richard Ho) explained, “When I was 10, I decided to start a team, after tagging along to watch my brother and sister compete, because I thought it was cool and wanted to do it on my own. It’s fun to build something and learn throughout the process and connect with others in the world. Through robotics, I’ve had opportunities to travel for competitions.”

Perhaps even better, said technical mentor Mike Azeka, the young engineers learn necessary skillsets for the careers of tomorrow. “They are getting hands-on experience with something they would never get otherwise, and in a safe environment. These competitions encourage cooperation, sharing ideas, teamwork, organizational skills and time management.”

Azeka added, “It’s exciting — for them and for me — to see their ideas take shape, and test those ideas and watch the incremental improvements of good ideas and not-so-good ideas, and how those ideas get executed.”

FTC teams start with programs for those as young as age 6, and continue all the way up to high school. Learn more at firstinspires.org/robotics

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