NEW PORT RICHEY — For the past two years, the River Ridge High School Royal Robotics team has fought its way to a berth in a prestigious national robotics competition.
That's a pretty impressive feat for a team that's winding up its second season after making it to the semifinals and earning the Creativity Award in the 2017 FIRST Championship in April in Houston.
The 21 members of the Royal Robotics team were among some 1,500 students to compete in Houston. Another championship bout was held later in the month in St. Louis. Winners of the two events will face off at the Festival of Champions in July in Manchester, N.H., where FIRST originated.
FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 as a way build student interest in science, technology, engineering and math and develop leaders through mentor-based programs and competitions for students ages 6 to 18.
Last year, the Royal Robotics landed a spot at the 2016 FIRST Championship after winning the Rookie All Star award at a South Florida Regional in West Palm Beach.
This year, the Royal Robotics earned their spot by winning the FIRST Lone Star Regional Competition in early April in Houston.
"The success this team has seen in two years is really remarkable, and they're competing with some really seasoned teams," said Terry Aunchman, director of career and technical education for the Pasco County schools.
"It's amazing. I think we definitely made a statement this year," said River Ridge High engineering teacher Sam McAmis, who mentors the Royal Robotics along with volunteers Tom Allen and Dave Raditch.
Their success is the result of the team's decision to step up the robot's design and alter team strategy, said team co-captain Allysa Allen, 17, noting that Royal Robotics were awarded the Excellence in Engineering Award at regional competition in Alabama as well as the Industrial Design Award at the regional in Houston.
Last year, the team honed a defensive strategy meant to appeal to seasoned teams and to help build alliances with other teams.
It worked, Allen said. "But this year we knew we had limited options. We chose to take on the mindset of being a leader and winning the game. The planning, the design, the engineering was up there, and that definitely added to our level of success."
"It's a pretty exceptional robot," said Zack Babcock, 17, one of two remote control "drivers" on the team. "We all did our part."
The team had six weeks to build and program a robot before it was "tagged and bagged," with no work allowed until team check-in at the competition.
Bouts unfold with a series of 2-minute, 30-second matches between two opposing alliances of three robotics teams each on a carpeted playing field.
"One thing about FIRST is that you have to be able to work with other teams," Allen said. "Even the best robotics won't win if you can't do that. That's how you win. It's based on teamwork."
In the 2017 competition, teams earned points for their robots' ability to collect large "gears," fire balls into a tall turret and climb a rope.
Team members worked on a secondary "twin" practice robot to make improvements, mostly honing the robot's ball "shooter" for accuracy. The team also co-hosted practice scrimmages with Team 79 Krunch, a FIRST robotics team based out of East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs.
"We average about 30 hours a week," said Allen, who spent the bulk of her time scouting other teams prior to competitions. "It's definitely a commitment — not something to be taken lightly."
The commitment paid off.
"I'm very impressed with them," McAmis said. "I think it is a really good way for them to get experience. It offers an opportunity for those who want to spend 20 or 30 hours a week working on an engineering project. They could be home playing video games or going out with their friends, but they are here at school building robots."
Team members raise money as well to help pay for expenses to get to competitions, Aunchman said, noting that the Pasco Education Foundation matched contributions from AT&T, Southern Manufacturing Technologies, Great Lakes Scale, DeVry Education Group, Universal Labeling Systems, the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation, Affordable Golf Carts, San Francis Veterinarian Hospital, Mike Peters Insurance and Suncoast Credit Union.
While seniors on the team are now done with FIRST, some are taking the next step.
In the fall, Allen will head to Boston to study biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Babcock will study mechanical engineering at the University of West Florida. Kevin Hudak and Tom Rimos plan to study computer science and mechanical engineering, respectively, both at Pasco-Hernando State College and then at the University of South Florida.
"This has been a really good experience," Babcock said, adding that his stint on the robotics team helped land an internship last summer at Lockheed Martin in Oldsmar. "Being a senior and this being my last year, it's a really good way to end the season."
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com. Follow @MicheleMiller52.