Members of the 18529 Rust in Piece team competing Saturday at the Illinois FIRST Tech Challenge tournament in Elgin are (from left) Ross Goldbaum, Ari Posner, Aiden Cohen, Jacob Hoyt, and Spencer Nguyen. The team also wanted to mention Josh Jacobson, who’s responsible for computer-aided design. He wasn’t present, but was essential. “This would not be possible without him,” Cohen said.

Members of the 18529 Rust in Piece team competing Saturday at the Illinois FIRST Tech Challenge tournament in Elgin are (from left) Ross Goldbaum, Ari Posner, Aiden Cohen, Jacob Hoyt, and Spencer Nguyen. The team also wanted to mention Josh Jacobson, who’s responsible for computer-aided design. He wasn’t present, but was essential. “This would not be possible without him,” Cohen said.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

‘This is what we do: we build robots’

Highland Park robotics team competes in state tournament Saturday, hopes to bring their program to CPS.

The robots do not fight. Get that straight. No buzzsaws, no sledgehammers, no flame throwers.

To grasp what these robots actually do, or try to do, you should watch the eight-minute animated video by sponsor Raytheon Technologies. It takes focus just to understand what teams are required to do; now imagine having to conceive and fund and build and program and operate a robot that can perform those tasks in a competitive setting.

This year’s competition is called “Freight Frenzy.” Having been to an Amazon procurement center, I couldn’t help but feel that, when no humans work at those places in 10 years, these little robots — each must fit within an 18-by-18-inch cube — will be part of the reason.

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Last season, when the FIRST Tech Challenge was virtual due to COVID, the robots fired small rings at a target. This year? Well, let Jacob Hoyt, captain of outreach for Highland Park’s 18529 Rust in Piece team, explain:

“This year’s objective basically boils down to picking up balls and blocks and ducks.”

Little rubber ducks, not big live ones. For the first 30 seconds of each match, the robots must work autonomously — that is, without influence from their operators. Then a two-minute guided scramble to grab the aforementioned balls, boxes and ducks, then place them on “hives,” three-tiered towers that tip over if not balanced correctly.

Co-captains Jacob Hoyt (left) and Adin Cohen show off the robot that will compete in this Saturday’s FIRST Tech Challenge state championship in Elgin. The task in their “Freight Frenzy” challenge involves the robot moving balls, blocks and rubber ducks to the round “hive” at right.

Co-captains Jacob Hoyt, left, and Adin Cohen show off the robot that will compete in this Saturday’s FIRST Tech Challenge state championship in Elgin. The task in their “Freight Frenzy” challenge involves the robot moving balls, blocks and rubber ducks to the round “hive” at right.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Meanwhile, three other robots — two operated by opponents, one by an “alliance” team — try to do the same thing on the same field. Your robot can lose points if it gets in their way.

Rust in Piece is one of 36 teams in FIRST Tech Challenge’s Illinois Championship Tournament at Elgin Community College on Saturday.

“I’m so jazzed, so excited,” said Hoyt, 17. The team assembled to fine-tune their robot Wednesday in Aiden Cohen’s basement, where several competitive robotics careers were born.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” said Hoyt. They came to robotics through Cohen’s older brother Benny, who went to the world tournament, twice, and now acts as mentor. “His brother was super into all this. Whenever I’d come over I’d see them doing really cool stuff, working with power tools, and that started my interest in STEM.”

Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics — I shouldn’t have to explain that.

Each aspect of the robots operation is a deep dive into the intersection of mechanics and computing.

For instance: how does the robot know where it is on the field?

“Three dead wheel odometers tracking the robot’s position,” said Cohen, the team’s captain of hardware (and primary financial manager). The wheels tell the robot where it is.

“It records X and Y coordinates,” elaborated Ross Goldbaum, captain of software and the primary robot driver. “Many teams use encoder ticks in their motors — which tells their motors to move a certain distance and that’s it. But if it slips, or another robot hits it, that can throw them off. The nice thing about odometry, if a robot does collide, or we run into this barrier, it’s able to correct itself.”

I assumed this was the same robot they won with last month. I was mistaken. Only three teams advance from state to the world tournament in Houston. That demands extra effort. They ditched their previous robot as inadequate.

“We decided to get right to the grind, and we spent five days designing this entire robot, staying up until 12 every day,” said Cohen.

The new robot cost about $3,000; they’ve spent about $12,000 on earlier versions.

Which leads to the business aspect. They have 14 sponsors, the names of the biggest emblazoned on the robot itself, like a race car.

“I’m really good at connecting with others,” said Hoyt. “So I work on outreach, to get funding.”

Just as the Boy Scouts teach morality along with knot-tying, there is a non-technical ethical aspect to the competition called “gracious professionalism.” They’ve lent tools and material to other teams in the middle of competitions and, oh yes, created a course they’ve begun to teach to 5th graders.

“We created the FIRST Virtual Robot Simulator that we were able to design into a curriculum,” said Hoyt. “What became really clear through the pandemic was the disparities of STEM education opportunities. Robots are super expensive. We think that lack of an early education promotion is partly to blame for low number of people in communities that aren’t as fortunate as our own. So we created a field course that targets 5th graders, training them on how to program a robot.”

They brought the curriculum to Wilmot School in Deerfield.

“They came to us and asked if we would be interested in a scaled-down version of what they’re doing for robotics competition,” said Maria Galanis, K-8 innovation specialist at Deerfield District 109. “Having our 5th graders be able to experience a taste of what actual robotics competition is sounded so fantastic, not only learning how to code robots, but the team-building skills these students gain. It was just fabulous.”

The program, started at a single 5th grade class, will be in all four Deerfield elementary schools next year. The teens also met with a representative from the Chicago Public Schools on Thursday, and hope to bring their program to CPS 5th graders as well.

The message they offer, Cohen said, is: “Hey, this is what we do. We build robots. But we also try to make the community better.”

In the competition, they’re judged not only by how their robot performs, but also by how it’s designed, the code being run, their engineering notebook, and their community outreach. They swept the semi-finals, didn’t take the top prize in finals — held back by penalties — but advanced because of their community work.

I spent nearly an hour talking to Hoyt and another hour watching the team fine-tune the robot (applying skateboard grip was involved). Only later did I realize I forgot to ask what they get if they win the tournament, besides going to the world competition in Houston. Then I realized, it hardly matters. They’ve already won.

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