VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — For six weeks it is pedal to the metal.
Starting from scratch with a manual outlining the challenge and the parameters of the base, the 456 Siege Robotics team has six weeks to build and program a robot from scratch. The 25 member team is made up high school students from throughout the area and they spend hours a day in a lab at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center designing, building and programming the robot.
"You have to think about all the mechanisms," team captain and Warren Central senior Shavan Manusukha said. "We first start with our drive train because you have to be able to move of course and you have to watch out for other robots on the field and play defense or offense. We make a very versatile drive train that can go side to side and dodge other teams as well as push other teams out of the way. Once you get your drive train down, you go to your mechanisms. Right now we have an elevator lift system that goes up and down."
The team fabricates the entire robot in house and the students also do all the programming. At the end of the six weeks, the team will compete in First Robotics tournaments in Orlando and New Orleans with the hopes of qualifying for the world championships in Houston.
"These students work seven days a week during build season," lead mentor Chuck Dickerson said. "We receive the challenge and since then they work seven days a week. Our typical build schedule during the week is 5:30 until. On school nights, we try to knock off around 9 or 10 o'clock. On Fridays, 5:30 until and I think last Friday we were here until 1:30 a.m. Saturday we start at 10 a.m. and they were here until 2 a.m. Sunday, we start 1 o'clock after church and we will go until 9, 10 o'clock."
Even with the hundreds of hours the team members put in, it is still a time crunch to get everything done in time.
"It seems like we never have enough time, but we always come out pretty well," team member Sam Greer said. "The hardest part I think is working together. The fact that we do work together in the close area we do, we learn to work well together."
Greer said despite the long hours working on the robot, his grades actually improve during competition season.
The team started at Warren Central in 1999 and became a community team in 2011. In that time, the team has won more than 30 awards at competitions and Dickerson said they are one of about 50 teams to have won each of the five major engineering awards. They have accomplished the feat multiple times including in just the last three years alone.
"Any student that wants to join the team, we take students public, private, homeschool," Dickerson said. "We've got kids from Raymond. We've had kids from Louisiana. We want any and all kids we can reach to come join the team and basically inspire them in STEM. It is a robotics team, it is a robotics competition, but the robots are just a vehicle we use to engage kids and get them excited about science, engineering, technology and math."
The team relies on sponsors and donations as the robot costs about $20,000 to build and when entry fees and travel are factored in, the season can cost upwards of $50,000.
"We start with a design process that is not unlike any engineering firm," Dickerson said. "We are given a task. Our task is a game, a challenge. They are balancing cubes and scoring points, but think of it more like developing a product where a customer comes to you and says this is what we need the machine to do. The students then sit down, brainstorm possible solutions to that and then have to balance that with what we can do."
This year's season started Jan. 6 and the students are currently working on building a practice robot to work out the kinks before working on their competition robot. The competitions are three day events with one practice day, a qualifying round and the finals.
"It usually starts on Thursday where you get your pit set up, which is a 10×10 cube where you put all your stuff," Manusukha said. "That is an entire practice day where you test your code and make sure everything is working properly. Then Friday you have your qualification matches where all 60 teams play against each other. Saturday, you have your playoffs where the top eight teams pick two other robots to compete with them in eliminations."
The team also competes in offseason events and recently won one in West Virginia where the robots compete for more than 24 straight hours in a test of endurance.