OAKLAND — Building high-functioning robots, once a science-fiction fantasy, has become a reality, a hobby and a bright career path for the student members of Messalonskee High School’s robotics club.

Take club co-captains Sabine Fontaine, 17, and McKenzie Brunelle, 16, who led their team over 37 others to a school-first regional win in a robot sporting competition Saturday.

Brunelle used to want to be a psychologist, because she wanted to help people, she said. During a trip to MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer campus sponsored by the robotics club, she said, she saw a robot perform a hysterectomy. The experience made her realize she could use her hobby to help people in another way.

“Engineering pays a lot more, a lot faster,” she said. “And you can help just as much.”

Fontaine is pursuing a career in engineering or computer science, and has been accepted by Harvey Mudd College, a private school in California that focuses on science and engineering. She sees a future, she said, where almost everything is voice-activated and cars drive themselves.

“I never would have gotten interested in it without the club,” she said.

This year, the club will move on to the national level after overcoming all competitors at the Pine Tree FIRST Robotics Competition at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

In pursuit of the title, three-robot squads, controlled remotely by their human builders, square off on a court, where they play offense or defense in an attempt to shoot the most plastic disks into slots set 9 feet above the ground. At the end, the robots score bonus points by climbing the three levels of a pyramid-shaped metal frame.

The Messalonskee club won the finals in a 122-107 nail-biter, after splitting the first two rounds.

Team Coach Jamee Luce said the team members put in many hours trying to decide what skills they wanted to emphasize — shooting the plastic disk, playing defense, and being able to climb the pyramid.

“Certainly, we believed we had built a good robot but I don’t think we went in thinking that we would win,” Luce said. “There were a lot of good robots there.”

Team members had fun designing, building and learning to drive their robot, but they were also learning skills that could translate into high-paying jobs, according to Bruce Maxwell, a Colby College professor who has taught robotics for the past 15 years.

“Their robots are thinking about things like obstacle detection,” he said. “They’re really taking on simplified versions of the same problems that everyday robots are going to be solving and doing in the really near future.”

As an example, he pointed to the Roomba, a robot vacuum-cleaning system that guides itself around a dirty floor, sucking up dirt as it goes.

“The Roomba is no more complex than the things that they’re doing in the high school,” he said. “And a lot of people are buying Roombas.”

Maxwell said that the students who make their robotics hobby a career by entering engineering or computer science fields have “an extremely bright future,” with big paychecks and a choice of jobs.

Maxwell also said the field of robotics is growing like never before, spurred on by the recent development of small, powerful motors, lightweight batteries and light frames.

“It’s an incredible time to be getting into robotics,” he said.

The advances have led to scores of recreational, sports-playing robots. In addition to the battling robots that bash each other’s gears out in gladiator-style competitions on television programs, robots have been designed in recent years to play pingpong, hockey, chess, bowling, golf and the violin, among many others.

While the demand is growing, Maxwell hasn’t seen an increase in the number of students who seek out his classes. Instead, he said, there are fewer students with robotics skills than ever, because more young people are growing up in a digital environment and are less comfortable with the nuts and bolts that lie inside every machine.

The most visible robot sporting event is the annual RoboCup, a league that, since 1997, has hosted international soccer competitions between teams of robot competitors. The league’s stated purpose is to field a team of robots by 2050 that will defeat the human winners of the most recent World Cup.

The achievements, while fun, also enable robots to perform more practical tasks. Robots are used to detect bombs, conduct surgery and provide remote elder care services, among others.

Many jobs involving robotics can be found in Maine, Rob Bartlett, owner of Wrabacon, an Oakland manufacturing firm, said.

“The way to cut cost out of production is to automate, and automation is the thing of the future,” he said.

At Wrabacon, Bartlett said, workers design machines that can boost company profits by performing complex tasks quickly. The company recently devised a machine that handles 120 jars of peanuts a minute, organizing them and lifting them into trays for easy shrink-wrapping and shipping.

At a recent food packaging conference, he said, he saw a machine that could take an ice cream order, scoop the ice cream out, put it in a cone, and add sprinkles or other toppings.

“The need is going to be greater as people use robots for more and more things,” he said.

Bartlett said students such as Fontaine, Brunelle and their teammates will be well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that need will create.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com