Battle of the bots
County team barely misses trip to world championship. By Jeff Hawkes, Staff Writer email@example.com
With 35 boxy, homemade robots vying Saturday for a state championship, 17-year-old Wren Hensgen's team was on a roll.
The competition is one part tic-tac-toe, one part WALL-E, one part dance party.
And through the first five rounds Saturday at Millersville University, Hensgen and six other Lancaster County teens who had wired, programmed and learned to control a feisty, TV-sized robot were undefeated and in the semifinals.
"Be careful. Be very careful," coach Leon Lobos of Millersville cautioned his team, the LANLords.
The contest is deceptively simple. In a 12-foot-square arena, two robots form a team to compete against two others.
The task is to remove plastic rings from dispensers along the sides and place them on any of 18 pegs on a central rack about four feet tall.
The more rings placed on pegs within two minutes, the higher the score. Achieve three in a row and you get even more points. And as you try to score points, you also can block or push aside opposing robots.
But the event is not all strategy and angst. Many teams come dressed for fun. There were teams in top hats, teams in Viking helmets, teams in red capes. The LANLords sported red and blue ringed headgear evocative of the game's plastic rings.
Speakers blared everything from Carly Rae Jepson to Michael Jackson, and occasionally line dancing and even a conga line broke out.
Each year since 1992, nonprofit FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- has come up with a new competition. After the rules are announced each September, teens get busy building a robot. The teens hope their combination of wires, circuits and hardware can stand the heat of competition.
Robots that place well in regional tournaments qualify for state championships. And then the state champs move on to the world championship, which this year will be in St. Louis.
Three Lancaster County teams entered robots in regional tournaments this season, but only LANLords made it to Saturday's state championship.
Robots cannot exceed set dimensions. But capabilities differ. Some teams built agile robots adept at sliding rings onto pegs. Others went for robots that are heavy, strong and defense-minded.
The teens behind LANLords went for a happy medium: a maneuverable robot with multidirectional wheels, but also a contraption more powerful than the average bot. And the strategy was a good one. For awhile.
"We try to block them from scoring, and then score while blocking them," said Tom Sowers, a Penn Manor junior.
Except they hadn't counted on a plastic plate that supports the robot's ring bucket cracking in Round 5.
Back at the team table, cluttered with batteries, power tools and bins of wires, straps and bolts, Hensgen attacked a plastic panel with a hacksaw to replace the damaged part. Sowers then drilled holes for the bolts.
"Ben, we need two long bolts," Sowers said to teammate Ben Thomas, another Penn Manor junior. "Where did we put them?" Crouching, Sowers came up with one on the floor.
Meanwhile, members of other teams dropped by seeking to curry favor with the LANLords. LANLords was one of the top four teams to make the semifinals. That meant they could pick two teams that didn't qualify to join them as allies. Teams not picked by the top four would sit.
Niket Shah, 16, a member of an Edison, N.J., team that faced elimination with a 2-3 record, saw the Lancaster County team's need for a bolt and ran to get one from his supply.
It was a kind gesture, but in the end Team LANLords chose to enter the best-of-three semifinal matches with strong and seasoned bot commanders MASH from Chester Springs and Silver Soldiers from Pottstown.
The LANLords-MASH-Silver Soldier alliance dropped the first match, but survived the second two to reach the finals.
The finals also were a best-of-three competition. Win two more matches, and LANLords, because it was the captain of its three-team alliance, alone would go to the world championship.
In the end late Saturday afternoon it came down to the third and final match. And Team LANLords -- which also included Colin Enders, 16, of Penn Manor, Ryan Ulrich, 16, of Hempfield and 12-year-old Annie Gleiberman of Lampeter-Strasburg Middle School -- had a tough call to make.
Why? MASH and Silver Soldiers had won the first match in the finals. Then Team LANLords and MASH lost the second match. Which two teams should compete in the deciding round?
Lobos, whose son, Andrew, another Penn Manor junior who was the hand-control wielding driver of the robot, urged his team to pair up with MASH.
"We're not going to let Silver Soldiers and MASH win and send us to Worlds," the elder Lobos said. "We're going to win on our merits or lose it."
But Andrew overruled his father, and his teammates agreed. They would send out MASH and Silver Soldiers. And if that pair won, LANLords would go to the world championship.
"Silver Soldiers are better at defense," Andrew explained. "Just flat out, they are."
The teens of the MASH and Silver Soldiers teams, then faced off against the Hawks of Moorestown, N.J., and the Terabytes of Robesonia.
Members of LANLords were left to watch and hope.
"Three-two-one-go!" the announcer said, sending the four robots into the final event.
Silver Soldiers knocked Terabytes onto its side and out of commission while MASH placed four rings on pegs. But the Hawks' speedy bot also placed four rings, two of which were on a higher row.
And by the slimmest margin, LANLords won't be going to St. Louis. A Downingtown team called Autobots will represent Pennsylvania. It captained an alliance with the Hawks and Terabytes.
"Our ring holder was our best design," said the Autobots' Steven Rickards, 18, of Downingtown, glowing with satisfaction. "The hinge gave us flexibility to pick up rings and score them without having to line up straight."
Ben Thomas took the disappointment well. "I feel the best team won," he said. "I think they'll do awesome at Worlds."
But he admitted he was second-guessing the decision to sit out the final match.
"I don't know if it would have turned out different," Thomas said, "but I would have felt better about us losing."n