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FIRST things first

By Kim Ukura

Sun Tribune

Characteristic of most projects, the last 72 hours can be the most trying and the most productive.

Before the FIRST Robotics team shipped their robot off to Milwaukee on Tuesday for the FIRST regional competition March 13-15, the team experienced both a disappointing accident and the joyful success of one of the robot's key parts.

The team also had more than a few late nights, and a dedicated few members even pulled an all-nighter to get their robot ready to go.

While test driving the robot last week, the team known as the Plaid Pillagers ran into, literally, their biggest obstacle to date: the gymnasium bleachers.

"We had about 20 feet to stop, and we needed about 30," junior Ray Finzel said ruefully.

The accident damaged a radio control board that came in the robot kit. Without the circuit board, they were unable to test the robot using the radio control, a setback Finzel said has them "a little disappointed."

Luckily, the team will be able to get the circuit board repaired in Milwaukee, although that will only give them the day before the competition to practice driving the robot with the arm fully attached.

On the other hand, use of the robot's mechanical arm has been a late-coming success for the team.

"A couple of days ago the arm didn't work and we considered scrapping it," senior John Schneider said, "but now it's working better than ever."

Finzel said the biggest concern he has for the robot right now is how fast it will drive with the mechanical arm attached. Without the added weight of the arm, the robot is quite fast, about 18 to 20 feet per second, which translates to just over 12 miles per hour.

The students also created some "pretty sophisticated" programming to help the robot gradually accelerate and decelerate. After initial testing, they found the quick changes in speed and direction could cause some damage to the internal parts, said coach Eric Buchanan.

Although the robot was shipped earlier this week, the team still has a few projects to finish before they leave for Milwaukee on March 12.

Finzel said they need to do a little more fundraising, as well as collect some parts they are still waiting for. They also plan to review their strategy so they can be most efficient with their time on the Thursday of the competition.

They also need to make their trademark light blue plaid skirts and kilts - an important piece of their marketing strategy at the competition.

Once they arrive in Milwaukee, the team will have just one day to work with the robot on the competition course to make last-minute tweaks and learning how to navigate the course.

Over 37,500 high school students on more than 1,500 teams from around the globe are competing in the FIRST Robotics competition this year. The Milwaukee regional is one of more than 40 similar regional competitions taking place over the next two months.

The robots challenge is a new game, "FIRST Overdrive," which is a race around a track where robots will need to maneuver 40-inch track balls over and under a 6-foot-6 overpass.

If the team is successful at the Milwaukee regional competition, they could advance to the championships in April at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.