By Tyler Roush
For the Opelika
It was supposed to happen last year.
After winning at the Rocket City Regionals in Huntsville in March, Opelika High School’s robotics team is headed to Houston, Texas to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship. The event is recognized as the world championship for robotics competitions.
FIRST runs an annual four-day robotics championship in April. This year’s competition will be held April 17 to 20 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
Brenda Howell, Opelika’s Greatest Robotics Engineers’ (OGRE) advisor and teacherl, has worked with the 14-person team throughout its two years to help the students with logistics.
After failing to advance from regionals in the team’s first year with their robot “Fiona,” Howell will now watch her students on the biggest stage with their robot “Lord Farquaad.”
“We’re really excited,” Howell said.
Opelika’s team is currently sponsored by NASA, United Technologies, AuburnBank and Gordian Strategies among others.
Each match is comprised of two alliances, red and blue, that are made of three teams. Every team builds a robot that must work and cooperate to achieve an objective, with points scored in several categories in a two-and-a-half minute round.
Roles on the team include drivers, technicians and coaches, with each student providing help for the robot’s engineering and strategy during a match.
The difference for Opelika’s team, Howell said, is its reliance on students to troubleshoot and problem-solve.
“You go to these competitions and you walk around in the pits, and many of the teams as you walk through, old teams that have been doing this for a long time, teams that have the top eight robots or whatever, many of them you’re going to see adults in the pits with them, helping them,” Howell said. “You walk by our pit, you don’t see adults there.”
With a new theme and competition released every year on the first weekend in January, each robotics team works to build a machine that will work to achieve that competition’s objectives. In accordance with those objectives, however, a robot must also suit the weaknesses and strengths of the other teams.
This season is space-themed, “Deep Space,” and requires robots to place hatch panels and discs onto a makeshift rocket ship, which robots also feed balls into. Though each machine could work to achieve certain tasks, others can be used to play defense to prevent opposing teams from scoring more points.
Separate from the “super intense” two-and-a-half minute matches, Howell said that the team has come together as a family.
“It’s kids,” Howell said. “These are my kids, my school kids. We get aggravated with each other. We have great times together, we travel together and we kind of vacation together, I guess you could kind of say. They’re my kids, and I’m as proud as I can be of them.”
Competing one time in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Howell and the team were minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. When members of the team told Howell and Mandi Edwards, OGRE’s second advisor, that they had never seen the beach or the ocean, they made sure to stop.
Though they had to get to the competition, the team parked, rushed onto the beach, took photos and stood and stared for a minute, and then packed back into the bus.
For freshman Kyler Mitchell, the team and its long hours spent together build to grow each member.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Mitchell said. “For me, this is like an experience of a lifetime. If I never did robotics, I probably wouldn’t be the person that I am today.”
Just two years into competing, now it was meant to happen.