Local high schools sweep statewide robotics competition

hirty robotics teams from schools and youth groups across the state competed March 2-3 at Chapel Hill High School. Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools


by Gregory DL Morris

Student robotics teams from Carrboro High School, East Chapel Hill High School, and Chapel Hill High School placed first, second, and third, respectively, out of 30 teams in a statewide robotics competition held March 2 and 3 at Chapel Hill High School.

The event was organized by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics, an international organization promoting robotics competitions around the world.


All but one of the 30 teams competing were from North Carolina, one of the smaller 11 U.S. districts. The North Carolina District has 78 teams. By comparison, the Texas and Michigan districts each have hundreds of teams. Some teams are school-based; others are community teams based in scout troops, 4H clubs, or dedicated groups that exist only to support a FIRST robotics team.

“Winning the competition is no small feat,” said Caroline Morais, lead mentor for Carrborobotics. “It required countless hours of brainstorming, design, engineering, programming and coding, building, and practice. Carrborobotics’ dedication, hard work, and ingenuity paid off. This win is a testament to the outstanding teamwork and talent of each member.”

Eastbots’ mentor Bradley Nemitz explained that teams play in three alliances: qualification, performance, and playoffs. Teams are randomly assigned to alliances, and their performance in qualification matches seeds them for the playoffs. The top seeds get to select which team is on their playoff alliance.

At the end of qualification matches, Carrborobotics was ranked first, Eastbots second, and Titanium Tigers third. Carrborobotics chose Eastbots and Geodebots from Greensboro to be on their playoff alliance. Titanium Tigers selected Zebracorns from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham and Infuzed from Cary for their playoff alliance. Both alliances worked their way through the playoff bracket all the way to the finals.

“Our event was part of the first week of qualifying competitions for the current season,” said Stewart Riley, lead mentor of the host Titanium Tigers. “The season started on January 6 with the release of this year’s game challenge, which changes every year. Teams have been designing, building, and programming their robots since then.”

Several more weeks of qualifying competitions will take place in North Carolina, with events at UNC Pembroke, UNC Asheville, Palisades High School in Charlotte, and Heritage High School in Wake County. The top teams will compete in the state championship at East Carolina University in Greenville, April 5-7. The best teams from the state championship will earn a spot along with approximately 600 other teams from around the world at the FIRST World Championship in Houston, April 17-20.

“The robots are built by the students using a lot of techniques, some being fairly advanced,” Riley said. “Our own team uses both Computer Numerical Control (CNC)  machining [a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery] and 3D printing in our robot construction. But it is also possible to build a competitive robot with not much more than hand tools.”

There is an official kit of parts available to all teams. The kit includes most of what is required to build a basic “kitbot” that can successfully meet the game challenge for that year. “Most advanced teams like ours tend to forego those and build a robot to our own design and from raw materials and individually purchased components, such as motors and sensors,” Riley said. “So robots can vary widely.”

The robots are programmed to operate autonomously during the first 15 seconds of a match, and then to be driven by students during the rest of the match. Advanced teams often automate the functions of the robot even during the driver-operated phase. The automation is done in several programming languages, with LabVIEW, Java, and Python being the most common. The Titanium Tigers program is in Java.

Teams design, build, and program the robots, which perform autonomously for the first 15 seconds of the competition, and then are operated by remote control, with some automated actions.Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

This year’s game has a musical theme called “Crescendo.” The idea is to pick up notes – dense foam rings approximately 14 inches in diameter – and shoot them into goals. Here is a video intro explaining this year’s game.

“There are some fairly complex scoring rules,” Riley said, “but all scoring is based on measurable things like putting notes in the goals, which are scored by automated systems. Referees oversee the action and call fouls on teams that break the rules. Despite the somewhat rough interaction among the robots, this is very much not combat. There is actually a rule that says ‘…this is not BattleBots.’”

Only 14 North Carolina teams will be attending the World Championship. “There are, however, off-season competitions in the fall that teams often attend to play this year’s game again and to train new members,” said Riley. “There will definitely be a new FIRST season next year, starting in January, as there has been since the very first competition in 1992, and our teams will definitely be there to compete.”

Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.

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