Compared to high-tech juggernauts Silicon Valley and Japan, rural Maine is not a very robot-friendly place.
“In Maine, we don’t have a lot of options for kids who are technically or mechanically inclined,” said Jamee Luce, coach of Messalonskee High School’s robotics club. “Right now, competitive robotics is the only option.”
But a funding disadvantage hasn’t stopped the students from making it to the world championships of an intensely competitive robotics challenge.
On Tuesday, about two dozen Messalonskee students will hop onto a bus headed for St. Louis, Mo., where a robot they built with gears, circuit boards and know-how will compete against some of the best-funded student robotic creations in the world.
Some of the robots are being built at NASA laboratories or a General Motors plant, Luce said.
“Certainly they have an advantage over us,” she said. “We don’t have those resources.”
Even so, out of a worldwide pool of about 2,700 teams, the student’s group, named Infinite Loop, became one of 400 teams that qualified to advance to the FIRST Robotics World Championships, a three-day competition.
On April 12, while competing against 160 teams in the New England Regional Championship in Boston, they were one of only four to win the Chairman’s Award, given to teams that demonstrate all-around excellence and serve as role models to other teams.
Messaklonskee is one of four Maine teams competing; the others are Old Town High School, Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, and South Portland HIgh School. Messalonskee’s primary sponsor is Wrabacon, an Oakland manufacturing company that builds food-packaging machines. The list of sponsors of the other three Maine teams includes Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments and Lockheed Martin.
The Messalonskee students named their robot creation “Ali” after boxing legend Muhammad Ali, another would-be champion who triumphed against long odds after rising from humble beginnings. The boxing Ali was known for being good-looking but the robot doesn’t live up to that reputation, with more well-heeled teams paying the most attention to the frills and glitz.
Ali, who “punches” the ball toward the goals, is made of bolts and bearings, rivets and chains, and long hours of blood, sweat and tears.
Ali’s rough edges are just one reminder of the team’s cash disadvantage.
“It doesn’t look as cool,” Luce said, “and it’s not on the same par of mechanical prowess.”
Luce said that they are very grateful for the generosity of their sponsors, but it can be difficult to ignore the fact that other teams have access to deeper pockets.
“Last year, the people beside us in our pit area were from Silicon Valley. We got to talking about budgets,” Luce said. “We were talking about fundraising and they were like, â€˜What are you saying? Our sponsor just gives us a blank check and we just put in a number.'”
“There are a lot of teams that are like that,” said Justin Shuman, a team leader and Messalonskee senior. Shuman is the club’s mechanical captain, a top spot in the group. “One team from Boston gets an unlimited credit card from Johnson and Johnson to get whatever they want.”
That’s not to say other teams look down on the Messalonskee students, said Dakota Condon, another senior in the club. According to her, one of the nicest things about the robotics scene is that it is so human.
“Attitudewise, everyone is really nice. There’s never been a time when any of us have been out of place,” she said. “Some kids are just more nonchalant about the money.”
While other teams have been capitalizing on their superior resources, Messalonskee’s students have been doing what Mainers have been doing for generations — making do with what they have.
Luce thinks they’ve found a niche that will make them an indispensable competitor.
During a match, teams of three robots square off against each other on an enclosed field with two beach-ball-sized spheres and multiple goals on either end. The robots work together to score goals with the balls, while defending against the robots on the other side.
This year, the rules emphasize teamwork, meaning more points are given for robots that cooperate with each other to score goals by providing assists and passing the ball to each other over a metal truss that spans mid-court.
That emphasis has given Infinite Loop an opening to compete with the more expensive models.
“You need to have three robots that can work together very effectively,” Luce said. “If you go out there with three robots that are very good at scoring, you’re not going to be very successful.”
While many of the high-powered robots are built to score lots of goals, Ali excels at the two secondary roles on a team — corralling the balls as they enter the court and passing the balls to teammates over the truss.
“When we went to championships at Boston, we realized we couldn’t compete with the major shooters,” Condon said, “but we could be that vital part of the team that gets inbound balls and shoots over trussing.”
Doing well in that niche has made them a hot commodity.
“We make a really great alliance partner,” Luce said. “We’re very good at controlling the ball.”
The students also have been working to overcome their financial handicap by brushing up on their cooperative skills. Teams can field the most expensive robots in the world — the New York Yankees of robotics — but if the people controlling them can’t work together, it won’t do them any good.
“You do have to go out and have conversations with teams about who you can complement,” Luce said. “That’s a huge life skill, and that’s something that we definitely work toward as a team.”
A year’s worth of robotics competitions isn’t free. It isn’t cheap, either, with team registration fees that can range up to $5,000 per competition.
The students also have to buy software and hardware, robot parts such as motors and gear boxes and wheels, and tools to assemble and maintain those parts, not to mention the cost of sending 30 people halfway across the country to compete for three days.
The bus ride to the championships will take a grueling 24 hours, but it’s the least expensive option, so that’s what they do.
“There are some teams that fly to St. Louis every single year,” Shuman said. “Our budget doesn’t allow it. We have to leave Tuesday morning so we can drive the entire night through; and right off of the bus, we get working on the robot.”
Despite their best efforts to pinch pennies, the team will spend about $40,000 over the course of a year. About two-thirds of the money comes from sponsors and the school district budget, but that still leaves a hefty chunk for the students to raise themselves.
Each student is required to spend a minimum of 30 hours just on fundraising, and many of them exceed that, Luce said, using methods that are familiar to many small-town community residents.
Some of the money comes a nickel at a time, through bottle drives. They hold a spaghetti dinner every January. They sell raffle tickets to friends, neighbors and strangers. And at the end of the year, they still have to reach into their own pockets to cover some of the expense of the trip to the world championship.
“It is not the most fun part of what we do, but it’s also the most real part of what we do,” Luce said. “Those are valuable life lessons. If you want something and you want to have fun, you have to put the work in and have to put the time in doing things that may not be so much fun. But the reward is better.”
The constant financial worries of the team actually have helped them to thrive, members said.
If Infinite Loop had more funding, Shuman said, it could buy better robot components and tools. For example, instead of re-purposing a gear box to a different speed ratio, he said, they could just buy a new gear box.
But then they wouldn’t learn how to re-purpose a gear box.
“In a way, we’re a little bit lucky that the kids are going through this,” Luce said.
Thinking outside the box to solve engineering problems isn’t the only life skill they’re picking up.
“Not everyone on my team is a mechanical engineer or a programmer,” Luce said. “The kids run the budget, so they learn about money management. Pretty much anything you would have to do to run a small business, we do.”
That includes crunching numbers on accounting software, writing business plans, putting together a website and strengthening public speaking skills by talking about the project to community groups.
“I’ve learned how to talk to the public,” Condon said. While most of the club’s graduating seniors will move on to careers in science and engineering, she plans to work in public relations, hopefully for a cause she believes in — such as FIRST Robotics.
“I would love to help this program,” she said. “It can change lives. It has changed lives.”
She’s not the only one who has learned to improve speaking skills.
“We have a few team members whose parents say when they joined the team they were really, really shy,” Condon said. “When you’re forced to talk to random strangers walking by, you really break out of your shell.”
And because this group of students has worked so hard, they really appreciate the end product of that work.
For other teams, Luce said, “there’s not the level of buy-in in terms of dedication to the team. In our culture, I think that has value.”
And the students certainly do seem to have bought in.
“It’s our entire life,” Shuman said. “We go home, we eat, sleep and breathe robots, honestly. It just spreads into you.”
For many, the team provides a sense of self and community. Their best friends are in the group. Their Facebook pages are littered with pictures of the competitions they’ve attended.
“For me, it’s sort of become my identity,” Condon said. “This is my family. It’s not just a group of friends anymore. We’ve been through so much. Not only triumphs but hardships and problems that we need to solve. These are the people who have got me not only through robotics problems but life problems. I am so grateful that this school had a team like this.”
The experience promises to pay dividends, not just in the championship, but in life.
“When I joined the team, I didn’t ever want to go to college,” Shuman said. Now he’s been accepted at University of Maine and plans to study mechanical engineering.
“I realize what I want to do with my future,” he said.