In the basement of Upper Canada College, just down the hall from the IT Department, a group of young men huddle around a desk. It could be a scene from a sci-fi crime drama. The team’s examining what look like two alien insect carcasses, poking and prodding various parts. An intense conversation ensues.
“The arm on this one is just not moving right.”
“It needs to open and close faster.”
“What about a lithium gel lubricant?”
No, this isn’t an episode of CSI: Extra-Terrestrial Unit, but there’s a mystery to solve and the clock is very much ticking on the UCC Robotics team. There’s a qualifying event in St. Catharines just around the corner and they need to troubleshoot their bots. They had a chance to test them for the first time at a competition a few weeks ago; they didn’t win, but they brought back a wealth of information to help them perform better next time.
“I think we’ve fixed all the kinks that were holding us back,” says Shakir Lakhani ’15. He, along with Derek Lam ’15, are co-heads of UCC’s Robotics Club. They are the senior members of the team and have been competing in VEX Robotics Competitions for years, Lakhani having graduated from the UCC Prep School where robotics are taught as part of the Grade 7 science curriculum.
The VEX Robotics Competition is the Grand Prix of high school robotics. Teams of students all over the world are tasked with designing and building robots to play against those of other teams. A VEX robot consists of at least one motor, usually four wheels, gears and perforated metal pieces that can be assembled into an 18”x18”x18” chassis. Various other gadgets and gizmos are added for additional functionality. Tournaments are held year-round with local champions competing in the world championship each April.
Every year a different game is announced. Last year’s challenge was moving balls, and UCC Robotics beat out 70 other teams to win a competition with their catapult design. The bot, named Tommy, was able to move a ball farther than any other team. You can see him in action in the video below.
This year’s game is called Skyrise, and as you might guess, it’s all about building up. Two partner teams receive points on their ability to stack cubes on pylons (watch the video below for a demonstration). UCC’s current two bots have been designed to perform certain skills necessary to excel at the game. Robot 9651-X is the cube collector and mover, while its partner, 9651-Y, has an elevator lift for maximum height reach.
The competition at these events is fierce but still friendly. Teams advance based on their performance, but there are also awards for design, teamwork and programming skills. Plus, even if your bot isn’t an all-round winner, it may still catch the eye of a competitor who’s moving on to the next round and needs a certain bot skill to fill a niche. In order to be picked as one of these helper teams, you need to stand out from the crowd.
“You see a lot of the same designs at these competitions, so if you can distinguish yourself by demonstrating ingenuity and creativity, you can still win people over,” says Derek.
You also need to make friends and form alliances. It helps that UCC Robotics already have a good thing going with their cohorts at the school next door, the all-girls Bishop Strachan School. The partnership provides mutual benefits: BSS has a practice field where UCC can test drive their bots, and both teams benefit from sharing knowledge and experience.
As for the upcoming competition, the boys have a single goal in mind: winning. If they’re one of the top performers, they’ll move on to the provincial championships in February.
“I think we have a good chance,” says Shakir. “We usually finish in the finals or semi-finals.”