Niles students to compete in robotics competition

Published 7:15 am Thursday, April 20, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - It's crunch time for Steve Karsten's robotics club.
Karsten and eight Niles High School students are only weeks away from a competition involving a model of robot none of them have ever used.
The Vex robot is a new robotics design system that resembles some toys of old and is the model of choice for the Vex Pentathlon.
Except the Vex is probably a little more expensive.
Karsten instructs a pair of electronic programming classes at the high school as well as the robotics club that is preparing for competition. Prior to teaching, Karsten was an electronics technician with the Air Force for 22 years.
Along with Andrews, the club also includes sophomores Eric Brooks, Bobby Lamberton and Montreil Cooks. Freshmen Carl and Jacob Wagner, junior club secretary Ashley Mechem and president and senior Jeremy Croteau are also all preparing for the May 13 competition.
The Vex Pentathlon at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield is specifically geared to the Vex robots. The events include the 1600 meter dash, long jump, tug-of-war, bottle bowling and skee ball.
On Tuesday, Karsten, Andrews and Brooks were constructing the “‘bot” the club will use in the skee ball competition.
Skee ball at the Vex Pentathlon is like Bozo the clown's grand prize game for robots. Each competitor must design a way for their machine to launch plastic golf balls from varying distances into buckets arranged at different heights.
The method by which Karsten's club has chosen is similar to the machines that shoot tennis balls for volleying or baseballs for batting practice.
The club wants to compete with a unique robot, but Karsten admits they need to avoid getting too complicated. “We don't want to have to go there and re-invent the wheel,” Karsten said.
Andrews is attaching and adjusting two green, hard rubber wheels to the metal launch arm. Once the bot is completed and programmed, the wheels should spit the whiffle balls out and into the buckets.
Constructing the ‘bots so they function with the desired trajectory, distance and power is time consuming. But, equally important is programming the machine's on-board computer, which is how the competitors will be required to operate the ‘bot during the Vex Pentathlon.
The key, Karsten said, is making sure both machines are in sync with one another to avoid any surprises on the day of competition. Similar steps must be taken with the ‘bots that will be used for the remaining four events.
The entire club is calm and confident, even though they are closing in on three weeks until the Vex Pentathlon. They remain focused on the project but also leave time to laugh and joke.
Karsten is also enjoying working with the small group in the after school program.
Even though the calendar says it's crunch time.