South Portland students take aim at robotics championship in St. Louis

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Less than a month from now, a team of South Portland students hope to storm the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo., to compete for the honor of “world champion.”

The dome is the home of the St. Louis Rams, but these kids aren’t football players. They’re the Riot Crew, South Portland High School’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics team. 

The 19 students and 10 advisers earned the trip to St. Louis for the games after finishing in first place at a regional contest March 1-3 in Manchester, N.H., where teams pitted their robots against each other in a complex, basketball-like game. Riot Crew finished eighth in the qualifying round and was chosen for the alliance that ultimately won.

In St. Louis, they’ll compete against 320 teams from 20 different countries. The winning team will get to demonstrate its robot for President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

Before the team can get to St. Louis, though, they have to raise the roughly $35,000 to get everyone there. Fairchild Semiconductor has agreed to give $400 per student, but there’s still a long way to go. 

The group has held fundraisers at Willow’s Pizza and plans to host a spaghetti supper and silent auction. Anyone interested in donating in-kind contributions or money can contact Bob Libby, the Riot Crew’s coach, at coach@riotcrew.org.

Their basket-scoring robot is already in Missouri waiting for them, so on Tuesday, the team was working out adjustments on a prototype in the robotics lab at Memorial Middle School. 

The team isn’t making any major adjustments to its strategy. That could be because they’ll only have a few hours to work on their robot before the games begin, but it’s likely because they already have a winning technique.

“We scored 179 out of 180 possible points in the autonomous round,” said team member Jack Manning. “We’re that good.”

Manning and a few teammates were responsible, among other things, for programming their robot to perform in that autonomous round, a period of time before the controlled match when the robot must perform on its own without any help. 

In the buildup to the regional contest, he ran his tests and designed his programs on a prototype like the one he tinkered with on Wednesday while the drive team test-ran the real thing in the Memorial school gym.

“No one can get enough time with the robot,” Manning said. 

Anyone not on the Drive Team or Pit Team (those are the guys who repair the robot, replace batteries and generally tinker during the tournament) is a profiler: They scout around for other teams to try to decide who would make the best alliance partner.

One of those profilers is Marc Rioux, a senior. Rioux has also been busy making a 30-second video in a program called Maya – the same one used to make big-budget Hollywood movies such as “Avatar.” The video-making contest is another aspect of FIRST Robotics.

“Computers are an under-appreciated part of FIRST Robotics,” Rioux said. Everyone is so focused on the robots that they forget the other aspects of the competition. 

“The assignment this year was to redesign the education system. They gave us 30 seconds to do that. It’s insane,” he said. 

While he may not have a starring role in the robotics competition, Rioux said FIRST Robotics has still given him a lot of valuable skills. He hopes to parlay those into a career of video game design after graduating from South Portland. 

“This is about getting these kids interested in science, in technology, in mathematics” said Steve Martin, a team mentor and engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor. “They’re learning so many skills.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Jacum Emery, Ross Usinger and Jack Manning work on Riot Crew’s robot, Betty, during a break in competition at the FIRST Robotics tournament in Manchester, N.H.

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South Portland students Mark Rioux, Ross Usinger and driver Jacub Emery react to the end of a practice match at the FIRST Robotics competition held in Manchester, N.H., early in March.

Riot Crew’s robot, nicknamed “Betty,” easily scores two-point baskets during the autonomous period of a match at the FIRST Robotics competition in Manchester, N.H.

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