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It’s alive … sort of

Ashland Daily Tidings

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The activity inside Ashland High School’s metal fabrication building Tuesday afternoon mirrored a classic science fiction tale.

Several goggle-bound students scurried about furiously, tools in hand, performing a variety of tasks: drilling, shaping, connecting, programming.

All for the sake of bringing a suitcase-sized mechanical creature to life.

But unlike the villains in vintage sci-fi yarns, the students on Ashland’s FIRST Robotics team were not bent on world domination. They wanted their four-wheeled robot to be able to balance on a bridge and maybe sink a basketball shot or two.

On March 9, the team will join 66 others from Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico at the FIRST Robotics competition at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. FIRST is a nonprofit organization founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to encourage young people to be involved in science and technology.

“It’s just essentially a bunch of nerds with varying opinions getting together and coming up with a solid idea,” Ami Cooper, 18, said of her Ashland High School team.

And these nerds have a decent shot at qualifying for the national competition. They were close last year, and this year they’re determined to clinch it. The team has met in the metal fabrication room several days a week after searching for a spot to work on completing their competitor.

It’s the movie “Real Steel” in real life.

The six-week rush to finish the robot started Jan. 7 at the FIRST official unveiling of this year’s event. At the event, organizers let students know what the 2012 competition challenge would be.

The competition could be viewed as a hybrid sporting event, combining basketball and gymnastics. Teams of three will be tasked with shooting baskets on a basketball court while defending their own basket in a round robin-style tournament. Bonus points may be scored by teams whose robot can balance on a bridge.

The balancing act is primarily what Ashland’s team, purposely dubbed “My Favorite Team,” is banking on for a majority of its points. Their robot’s throwing arm hasn’t been cooperating and has been through several redesigns.

The robot as a whole is a four-wheeled machine with each wheel powered by a separate motor. It’s got a Wi-Fi receiver on board so the robot’s pilot can wirelessly maneuver it with twin joysticks — “tank steering” — off the court. The machine’s brain, a computer called a cRio, is mounted securely beneath a sea of wires and servos.

Junior Matthew Knudsen, 17, has been lead engineer on the project. It’s a natural fit — since childhood, he’s torn things apart and put them back together. Legos and Erector Sets were staple playthings. It’s his third year on the team, and he’s still learning the down-to-the-wire nature of deadlines.

“We’ve been about as efficient as we can be,” Knudsen said.

Sophomore Peter Bach, also on the school’s water polo and wrestling teams, comes from a similar background. He assists his dad in his machine shop and builds remote control and model cars.

“I just like to build stuff,” Bach said. “I’m not really good with the computer thing.”

But team software programmer Ari Falkner, 15, is. When he’s not developing an Android smartphone app for Ashland High’s website or studying, he’s devoting time to writing code for My Favorite Team’s robot. When the team kicked off its project, he endured some five-hour sessions writing the digital commands.

Not that he minded. He’s been interested in programming since he was 5 years old when his dad told him about Bill Gates and how his interests led to wealth and huge advances in technology.

Falkner said he messed around with Adobe Flash programming for a while before making the transition to more serious code. Being on this team has developed his skill set, he said.

“I’ve learned so much,” Falkner said. “It’s given me a good taste in electrical engineering.”

Allowing this group of 16 teens to flourish in this way is key to why FIRST Robotics is an important one, said coach and adviser Paul Moen. His son, 16-year-old Nick, a senior, is on the team for his third year, but Paul plans to continue to coach next year when he’s not there.

“It’s an outlet for these really smart kids,” Moen said. “They get along famously. They’re all friends.”

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