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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Juan Diego Catholic High School students Josh Voravong, center left, Joey Jonaitis and Josh Breithbach try to urge their robot on during a match.

The Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus was humming with the sound of robots the past few days as the annual FIRST Robotics tournament came to town.

There were 31 teams made up of over 300 high school students prepared to pit robot against robot during the regional competition.

FIRST Robotics is a national event where high school students, with the help of mentors, design and build robots, which compete against each other. The robots are designed to fulfill objectives, which vary from year to year.

Teams learned the objectives for this year at a kick-off meeting in January. At that time they also received a basic robot parts kit. Then they had eight weeks to design and build their robots.

At the end of the eight-week period, robots were packed up and shipped to a holding area until competition day.

Thursday morning, students were busy unpacking and reassembling their creations in preparation for the competition. Throughout the day, they were able to take the field to test their robots. The following day, teams began qualifying for finals.

Friday started with an opening ceremony to welcome teams to the competition, which included a pre-recorded message from Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Following the opening ceremony, teams began to battle for the top seed.

To begin each round, teams had 15 seconds to let their robots run in autonomous mode, meaning it ran from a preprogrammed memory, with no human control. If students could program their robots to hang a yellow tube, called an ‘ubertube’, on one of the rows of pegs, they would earn bonus points.

Only a handful of teams took advantage of that bonus opportunity. One of those teams was team 2993 from Intech Collegiate High School in North Logan. Jim Baker, team mentor and school engineering teacher, said he credits the experience they gained from the past two years in the competition.

“We’ve learned a lot from previous years,” said Jim. “That allowed us to build and test a complete robot prior to the shipping date. Then during the Thursday practice day we could focus on finishing the autonomous mode.”

After the brief autonomous mode, the two minute remote control period began. Students tossed inflatable red, white, and blue triangles, circles, and squares onto the 27 x 54 foot playing field. Then using remote control, other students would earn points by attempting to steer the robot to pick up the inflatables and hang them on rows of pegs on either end of the field. Teams who were able to hang all three shapes in a row earned extra points.

In the final 15 seconds of the remote control period, teams had another opportunity for bonus points. Smaller robots, called minibots, were deployed in an attempt to be the first to climb one of four 10-foot poles. Not all teams had minibots.

Often, teams didn’t have the time or knowledge to take advantage of the bonus opportunities. Such was the case with team 3810 from Cyprus High School in Magna. The rookie team was involved in another competition, which prevented them from putting in the time for FIRST Robotics.

“We only have five people on our team, and we really didn’t know what we were doing,” said Cyprus students Trevin Avery and Gabe Munoz.

Team mentor, Randall Isham, agreed. “We had some problems with our robot arm and we weren’t able to get the autonomous mode working,” he said. “But we’ll be back next year.”

Despite the setbacks, the Cyprus team was still able to compete, moving around the field in an attempt to block opposing teams from hanging the shaped pieces.

For each round of competition there were three teams, chosen by a computer algorithm, which formed an alliance and competed against another alliance. All members of the alliance shared the same score. By blocking opponents, the Cyprus team aided their alliance.

Following lunch on Friday, there were more rounds of competition.

Saturday morning saw more qualifying rounds, ending just prior to alliance selection began.

The top 24 teams got to compete in the finals. Instead of computer selection, teams selected their own alliances, with the top teams selecting first. After the selection process, and lunch, the finals commenced.

The top ranked alliance consisted of team 2122 from TVMSC, Boise, Idaho, team 399 from Lancaster, Calif., and team 3239 from Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science, Layton.

The second highest alliance had team 2993 from Intech Collegiate High School, North Logan, team 3405 from Maple Mountain High School, Spanish Fork, and team 1696 from Sun River, Mont.

Following several rounds of eliminations, the top two alliances met in the finals. The alliance of teams 2122, 399, and 3239 came out on top and advanced to the national finals in St. Louis later this month.

In addition to helping students gain an interest in science and engineering, the FIRST Robotics competition also strives to teach cooperation, sportsmanship, and team spirit. To encourage that behavior, there are additional awards that recognize those ideals.

The most coveted award is the Regional Chairman’s award. This year, team 1891 from Mountain View and Renaissance High Schools, Meridian, Idaho, took that prestigious award, as a model for all teams to emulate.

Other awards:

Dean’s List Finalist Award, for outstanding student leadership, won by Siena Richard of team 3374 from Jackson Hole High School, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Blake Altson from team 3513 from Lakeland High School, Lakeland, Idaho.

Engineering Inspiration Award, for advancing respect and appreciation for engineering, taken by team 3374 from Jackson Hole High School, Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Gracious Professionalism Award, for outstanding sportsmanship, won by team 841 from Richmond, High School, Richmond, Calif.

Highest Rookie Seed Award, team 3483 from Bozeman High School, Bozeman, Mont.

Industrial Design Award, honoring form and function in efficiency, team 2993 from Intech Collegiate High School, North Logan.

Industrial Safety Award, team 1566 from Hillcrest and Bonneville High Schools, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Judges Award, chosen by competition judges for unique efforts, performance, or dynamics, team 2594 Nampa School District high schools, Nampa, Idaho.

Quality Award, for machine robustness, team 2122 from Treasure Valley Math and Science, Boise, Idaho.

Rookie All-Star Award, for a young but strong partnership effort, team 3483 from Bozeman High School, Bozeman, Mont.

Team Spirit Award, team 2484 from Woods Cross High School, Woods Cross.

Following competition on Friday, several special awards were handed out:

Woodie Flowers Award, given to mentor Gary Duquett from team 3374 from Jackson Hole High School, Jackson Hole, Wyo .

Imagery Award, team 3288 from Big Piney High School, Big Piney, Wyo.

Creativity Award, team 3013 from Vallejo City Unified, Vallejo, Calif.

Engineering Excellence Award, team 399 from Lancaster, Calif.

Entrepreneurship Award, team 3374 from Jackson Hole High School, Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Innovation in Control Award, team 3289 from Juan Diego Catholic High School, Draper.

Rookie In3spiration Award, team 3513 from Lakeland High School, Idaho.

Ted may be contacted at uponprecept@gmail.com