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Flight of victory: Local robotics team rides balloon-popping drone to a national championship

Chris Zheng and Ethan Sun of The Bishop's School and Steve Zhang of Francis Parker School
From left, Chris Zheng and Ethan Sun of The Bishop’s School in La Jolla and Steve Zhang of Francis Parker School in San Diego won the 2022 Aerospace Robotics National Tello Competition in the beginner category.
(Lei Han)

Students from The Bishop’s School in La Jolla and Francis Parker School in San Diego win the 2022 Aerospace Robotics National Tello Competition in the beginner category.

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A team of local students won a national robotics championship after learning to code a drone to pop balloons.

The team, called Los Globos, consists of Ethan Sun, a sophomore at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Steve Zhang, a sophomore at Francis Parker School in San Diego, and Chris Zheng, an eighth-grader at The Bishop’s School.

Los Globos was the winner of the 2022 Aerospace Robotics National Tello Competition in the beginner category Dec. 5. The competition asked teams to program a Tello drone to complete autonomous navigation and identification tasks.

Los Globos coded its drone using the Python language to pop specific balloons on a wall of mounted balloons using a skewer strapped to the drone. The team submitted a video of the drone accomplishing the task (bit.ly/3HIZzXf).

The objective is to “pop the correct balloons in the fastest amount of time without popping the wrong balloon,” Ethan said. “Our algorithm works pretty well.”

“Efficiency is basically key,” Steve said. He noted that the drone can be “pretty inaccurate,” so results also are assessed on how smoothly it flies.

The top five teams in each division have their code run by competition judges on a different course setting and they present to a panel of judges.

The Los Globos team programmed a drone to pop specific balloons during the Aerospace Robotics National Tello Competition.
(Lei Han)

Competition winners are chosen from a combination of scores from the videos and live presentations.

This was the first time the members of Los Globos had entered the ARC competition. Steve said he and his teammates, who met during a weekly after-school program, received robotics training from mentors and worked up to the competition’s requirements over several weeks.

“Everyone’s doing robotics, but not many people are doing drones, and I feel like drones are special and they’re really useful.”

— Ethan Sun, sophomore at The Bishop’s School

“We are proud of our accomplishment,” said Ethan, who added that he was “pretty excited” when he received the email announcing the win.

Los Globos heard about the competition later than other teams, Ethan said, so “we didn’t have that much time to work on it. I’m just really happy that we were able to still pull it off.”

Ethan, who was on a robotics team that advanced to the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge in 2021, said this competition drew his attention because of the use of drones.

“Everyone’s doing robotics,” he said, “but not many people are doing drones, and I feel like drones are special and they’re really useful.

“It’s nice to … come together and work on something that is different from other projects but also has its own purpose and its own shape.”

Steve said he’s always been interested in robotics and enjoys the feeling of seeing his coding come to life.

This competition was both more difficult and more fun than other robotics contests in which the robots are on the ground and the teams are larger, he said.

“It’s really hard to split the work,” Steve said. “I wanted a project that was really engaging. This [was] the perfect opportunity.”

Chris said the competition presented an interesting opportunity to use his Python skills.

The team now is setting its sights on next year’s Aerospace Robotics National Tello Competition in the intermediate or advanced category and is looking forward to the more immediate Regional Kit Competition, scheduled for the spring.

In the spring contest, Steve said, teams must build a kit “or design your own drone” that must move other material. “It’s a lot cooler.” ◆