Hardwired for success: robotics team continues to compete during pandemic

Emily Mulderig

The Build Captain of Wilson’s robotics team trekked to the robotics lab earlier this year and gathered every material and spare piece that club sponsor Angela Benjamin would let her take. 

The Wilson senior Wyatt McCrary then distributed the materials to team members so that they could individually build separate pieces of a robot. A few weeks later, she picked up the newly constructed parts and brought them back to her house. Tasked with assembling the parts into one functioning robot, she realized, “Woah… this going to be difficult.”

The members of the team are used to working collaboratively in their lab, preparing for huge competitions with dozens of teams and robots. A year ago, all that was thrown out the window. 

“Building the robot is completely different now that we’re virtual since so much of it before was done in the lab,” Programming Captain and Wilson junior Sammy Taubman said. 

According to Taubman, the team follows the same general design process as they always have—brainstorming, prototyping, and building—but competitions are nothing like they used to be. 

For virtual competitions, robotics teams are able to build or buy a version of the playing field that the robots normally compete on and turn in a video of the robot to be judged. They also submit an engineering notebook, which documents their design process. 

Earlier this year, the team prepared to compete in the First Tech Challenge (FTC). This year’s FTC competition was called “Ultimate Goal,” and involved a complicated challenge in which the robots navigated obstacles and shot rings into targets worth different point values. 

The Wilson team chose to focus on ensuring the bot would be able to intake and shoot the rings because of the limited timeframe and materials available. “One downside of [working remotely] is that we still weren’t able to use a lot of the tooling and machinery that’s available to us in the shop,” Taubman explained. 

The captains also encouraged mostly underclassmen and new members to work on the FTC robot. “We wanted to show them that they could put something together and give him a bit of confidence for the coming seasons when we graduate because they’re the future of the team,” McCrary said.

Unfortunately, they were unable to get the robot functioning in time to submit to the competition, but they did submit the engineering notebook. “We did eventually get a robot which we’re pretty happy with and glad we were able to get experience for newer members,” Taubman said. 

The team was also able to reorganize their leadership positions this year. “We have always had trouble having too much [responsibility] fall on one person and not enough drive in [the other] members,” Lead Captain Sami Kunaish said. 

“The virtual environment gave us the time to learn how to delegate responsibility and test out our new leadership system,” he said. Most importantly, Kunaish added, the team was still able to recruit new members and get them involved. 

For another competition, the First Robotics Competition (FRC), the team was able to recycle their bot from last year after making some tweaks. They submitted photos and descriptions of the robot for judging and also participated in some written challenges. 

As part of the FRC competition, some members of the team working with Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software designed their own robotics game, which was called “Pandemonium” and involved pandemic-related challenges, like delivering vaccines to hospitals. 

Most recently, the robotics team focused on another competition: Infinite Recharge At Home, which involved submitting videos of a robot performing tasks, like the FTC competition. For the first time since last year, a few members got to meet in person, working together to film the competition’s challenges in the Wilson atrium.