HHS Robotics Team competes in Little Rock
Ken McLemore, Hope Public Schools

HOPE – They battled until the lights went out… literally.

The Hope High School Robotics Team did battle over the weekend in the newest student competition sweeping the country, only to be thwarted by a power failure from a traffic accident outside the arena that halted all competition at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock.

After a series of on-site modifications and a change in contest strategy, HHS math teacher and team co-sponsor Mark Reed said the Knights of the Claw (6168) began to gain some momentum in the early round of the Arkansas Rock City Regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

“I was sick that morning, and Ms. (Tine) Nicholson, the other mentor/coach/sponsor, was organizing the field team and drive team while I kept an eye on the kids in the pit,” Reed said. “Ben (Knight) and Ernie (DeLarosa) tell me the very instant they put the robot on the field was the instant the lights went out in the whole stadium. It turns out that a car smashed a light pole and knocked out the power.”

Power was not restored for four hours, by which time the competition had been suspended for the day, and the Hope team had no chance of advancing.

Comprised of HHS students and two faculty sponsors, the HHS Robotics Team competed in the FIRST Robotics “Stronghold 2016” contest at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.

The team constructed a robot to specifications set for the FIRST Robotics regional contest. Design concepts for the “Stronghold 2016” event required remote controlled movement; the ability to recover objects; the ability to launch a projectile; maneuverability; and, the ability to defeat obstacles.

Reed said modifications had to be made prior to a rigorous competition inspection March 10 because of damage to robot components during transit.

“It took us a couple of hours to fix those problems, but by 10:30, we thought we were ready for inspection,” he said. “The first practice matches were scheduled for noon, so when we requested an inspector to come check the bot, the impression was we would be ready to battle in no time.”

But, inspectors were slow to complete the meticulous process; and, they were demanding, requiring no more than a 120-inch perimeter for the body of the robot. Reed said that, after several checks, the inspection was completed, but not in time for practice matches on Thursday.

“Our inspector showed me the inspection forms of five other teams, all veterans, that had not passed inspection,” he said. “There were a few teams that never cleared inspection. So, the fact that we competed at all probably speaks volumes on our determination to get it right eventually.”

According to information from FIRST Robotics, the competition was themed upon the siege of a medieval fortress, requiring teams to design robots capable of both offense and defense. The challenge course between the two fortresses of the competing teams can be modified into some 10,000 different configurations; and, teams did not know what configuration they were to deal with until the competition.

“The first thing we noticed was that our robot had too much trouble getting up the ramp to the defenses,” Reed said. “One of the good things we did in the first couple of matches is that we could support other teams that got stuck getting over obstacles. We made our first new friend by pushing an alliance team robot through a low obstacle when they got stuck.”

A total of 50 schools in Arkansas and from eight other states entered the contest, which is part of a larger worldwide series with a potential for winning students across the world to share in up to $25 million in college scholarships.

The HHS team placed 49 in the Little Rock event. But Reed said that was not the point.

“There is a spirt of cooperation and camaraderie that FRC calls gracious professionalism,” he said. “They don’t just play nice, most of the teams feel compelled to help anyone who needs it, and all they ask is that you pay it forward.”

On-the-spot mechanical modifications during the competition aided by team alliances helped the HHS team learn the competition process and some points about engineering that paid off on Friday, Reed said.

“This was the best match yet,” he recalled. “I remember we were supposed to cross a defense and challenge the other alliance’s tower. All I know is, we crossed the first defense. All I remember is how excited everybody got. I remember being hugged and high-fived by everybody.

“As far as The Knights of the Claw were concerned, we had just scored some offensive points and were finally on the map,” Reed said.

He said, ultimately, alliance members came to rely upon the Hope robot as a defensive player because the HHS robot weighed 119 pounds; one pound under the contest limit, making it one of the heftiest in the competition.

“We managed to accrue 280-plus defense points despite being unable to cross a defense, but without that ability to move into the other alliance’s courtyards and score offensive points, we had trouble getting enough points to move up the rankings,” Reed said.

Design and construction of the robot were done entirely by the students, with some technical assistance allowed by community volunteers, according to Reed.

“We are proud of how far we’ve come despite the setbacks,” he said. “This time last year, we had no idea how to do the things we know how to do now. We are tremendously grateful to the many people and businesses that have supported us.”

Community and business sponsors of the HHS robotics program include The Argosy Foundations, Cooper Tire, Amigo Juan Mexican Café, Hope Kiwanis Club, Hope Lions Club, Hope Rotary Club, Anderson Orthodontic, Holiday Inn of Hope, Cox Brothers Foundry, Lockheed-Martin Corporation, Jerry Martin, and Val Knight.

Team members include Mason Henley, Johnny Luna, Tristan Martin, Hannah McCorkle, Ernesto DeLarosa, Gervon Pennington, Madison Powell, Daniel Dyer, and Benjamin Knight. Academic sponsors Reed and Nicholson are both math faculty members at HHS. 

(See more photos on HHS Facebook page.)