Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh, Triangle area robotics team puts creation to the test

At about five feet tall and 120 pounds, Benjy isn’t the typical athlete on the basketball court. Benjy is a robot, built and engineered by 24 teens known as the “Hitchhikers.”

The Hitchhikers are students in grades 9-12 from area schools including Athens Drive, Enloe, Green Hope and East Raleigh. The team is set to compete at the FIRST Championship April 25-28 in St. Louis, after qualifying at a regional competition last month.

The Hitchhikers – inspired by the popular science fiction novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – will go up against about 300 other teams, testing Benjy’s ability to score baskets set at various heights using a modified ball.

The Hitchhikers got a chance to work out the kinks at a second regional competition held Friday and Saturday at the J.S. Dorton Arena in Raleigh.

In the first match, Benjy shot and missed. And continued to shoot and miss to the frustration of his drivers and programmers.

Toward the end of his 2-1/2-minute match, Benjy made a last-ditch effort to score some points by balancing on a bridge, but time ran out.

Programmer Danny Gross, 18, of Enloe High School, figured out why the robot was underperforming: The arena’s windows were throwing off Benjy’s targeting system.

Gross worked on developing the code that translates the target and distance for Benjy’s automatic shooting mechanism.

“The robot is identifying the windows as targets,” Gross said. “The original plan was to use the targeting system that tells it, ‘here’s the target,’ and figures out how hard to shoot the ball. The problem is it’s saying the distance is bigger than it really is.”

Between matches, Gross and the team got to work trying to make adjustments. They had about 20 minutes before they had to queue up for their next match.

In the end, the Hitchhikers went manual, but Benjy continued to have problems.

Fun figuring it out

It was another frustrating match for the team, but it didn’t take away from the students’ excitement.

“It’s fun to do,” Gross said. “When it works it’s a blast, and when it doesn’t work, it’s fun to figure it out.”

Athens Drive High School student A.J. Rice, 17, of Raleigh is a first-year member of the Hitchhikers.

“It’s a lot more fun than I thought I would have building a robot,” Rice said. “It’s like a major league. I knew some basic engineering, but I’ve learned a lot.”

Rice said he’s picked up some skills with pneumatics. Students used pneumatics to create a compressed air system that operates Benjy’s shooting.

Taylor Kessler Faulkner, 18, of Chapel Hill, is one of two girls on the team. She is also a first-year member.

“I started out with no knowledge whatsoever,” she said. “I’ve learned how to use power tools like a jigsaw, and some of the technical stuff.”

Kessler Faulkner, who is homeschooled, said she decided to join the team because she’s interested in computer science and wants to study engineering in college.

In addition to helping build Benjy, Kessler Faulkner is the co-captain of the Hitchhikers’ spirit team. Each robotics team also earns points for spirit, based on overall theme, T-shirts, the design of their “pit” or work area, and their outreach efforts to other teams.

Taking elements from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” Kessler Faulkner and the spirit team designed Area 42 slips and hid them around the Dorton arena. Teams who found them and returned them received a toy mouse. In the book, mice are seen as hyper-intelligent beings.

Athens Drive High School student Corey Goodfred, 16, was part of the Hitchhiker’s spirit initiative. He was dressed as a “morph” in a blue body suit that covered his face. Goodfred said he loves math and science and called robotics “exciting.”

“It helped me realize this is something that I might want to do (as a career),” he said.

Going ‘pro’

Coach Richard Coutant of Apex is a lead engineer for Progress Energy and said the robotics competition helps show students how the skills they learn in school can be applied in “real life.”

Students have to learn challenging skills such as assembling a drive train, using engineering software, and making end effectors work to operate Benjy’s limbs, Coutant said.

Students also raise money to buy parts, present to potential donors and mentor younger students.

“This is the sport of the mind,” Coutant said. “At this competition they say, ‘This is the only sport where every one of these guys can go pro.’ ”

Five of the team’s seniors have already been accepted into N.C. State University, he said.

At the end of Saturday’s matches, the Hitchhikers didn’t make it to the finals of the N.C. FIRST regional competition. They ranked 45 of 56 teams.

“They enjoyed the experience and being able to go out there and compete,” said parent Naomi Hammeke of Holly Springs. “I’m proud of them.”