Robotics team starts season with a victory


GROTON — It’s robot season and the team from Fitch High School is off to a flying start.

On Saturday, March 6, they were victorious at the Pioneer Valley District Robotics Competition in Springfield, Mass.

 After the initial day of qualification rounds the team was ranked 29th, but an excellent performance in the later rounds allowed Fitch to be a member of a three team alliance that won the championship.

At this time every year the Fitch Senior High School Aluminum Falcons, the school’s robotics competition team, prepares to enter several competitions in the hopes of earning New England recognition as one of the best teams in the region.

The school competes in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition circuit.

“Last year we made it to the New England Regionals and were ranked number 12,” said Brian Chidley, physics teacher, coach and faculty advisor to the team. “We could have gone to the national championship in St. Louis but had to decline because we didn’t have the money. The entrance fee alone was $5,000 and that doesn’t include the cost of getting there, staying there and equipment expenses.”

The previous year they were Connecticut state champions and New England champions. They have won several tournaments over the last three years and are known as a force to be reckoned with throughout the area. The team is that good.

About 30-students are team members, guided by 10-adult volunteers called mentors. The name is appropriate, for their guidance in construction the robot and making it operational is invaluable.

Their success relies on their division of labor which is surprisingly complex. A Computer Aided Drafting crew designs parts for the robot and in some cases manufactures hardware using their own three-dimensional printer.

A building crew constructs the robot and eventually splits into a drive team and a pit crew.

The drive team runs the robot during the competition and consists of an operator, a base driver, a human player and a coach. A pit crew takes care in the maintenance of the robots on game day, practices, tools, and other accessories.

The programming team creates the code for the autonomous and tele-operated functions of the robot. The team learns the Java programming language during the off-season and is in charge of the electrical wiring.

Lastly, a marketing team promotes the Falcons using a detailed web page, as well as photo and video communications. “There is a lot of work that goes into it all year,” Chidley said.

Mentors guide the students but refrain from doing too much. “We are here to guide the students but we have to let them learn things for themselves. Sometimes we go to a competition and you can tell a robot was worked on by some very knowledgeable adults and not the students. There is a balance between doing too much and doing too little,” Chidley said.

The Falcons are sponsored by several of the industries in town, including Applied Physical Sciences Corporation and the H.R. Hillery Company. Chidley and his team are grateful for every donation, but funding the program is probably its greatest obstacle. Considering parts, travel, fees and other expenses, the Falcons need about $40,000 per year.

“We appreciate everything; the donations and the time and effort of our volunteers. What we lack is that one big sponsor that many other teams have,” Chidley said. “Some teams are given a check for $25,000 right at the start of season. That’s a big advantage. If we hadn’t received a grant from the Pfizer Foundation this year I don’t know what we would have done.”

According to marketing team mentor Everett Wilhelm, this year the team will compete in the “Recycle Rush” challenge where they must gather and stack large totes and recycle bins from several areas into other areas to score points. Pool noodles will also be used to score additional points by throwing them in designated areas.

As part of the task, all teams are given only six weeks to make the robot.

“Last year Fitch hosted on of the competitions and that’s why I got involved,” Wilhelm said. “After seeing what it took to put on the event, the work the team accomplished and the atmosphere of the competition, I had to help this year.

Called the “Aluminum Falcons,” the name comes from a Star Wars parody on the television show Robot Chicken. They are also known as Team 2168, their identification number since they entered in 2007. The number is as every bit as part of their identity as their name.

The team won the Pioneer Valley District event thanks to the driving talents of seniors Emma Stark and Fin O’Connor, the programming talents of junior Vittorio Papandrea, and the truly exceptional noodle-throwing capabilities of senior Jacob Kowalski.

The design and construction of the robot was led by seniors Matt Nowak and Cameron Wilhelm. Critical organizational efforts by senior Dominique Harris greatly contributed to the team’s success.

Twenty-five other team members made huge contributions to make this year’s robot possible. They will be competing in the Rhode Island district contest at Bryant University in Smithfield, at the New England Championships in four weeks, and hopefully at the World Championships in St. Louis, in six weeks.



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