NEW PORT RICHEY — The competitive season isn't over for the engineering whiz kids from River Ridge High School.
After two promising outings at regional competitions, the River Ridge Royal Robotics team is set to compete at the FIRST Robotics World Championships on Wednesday through April 30 in St. Louis. The team is one of two from the Tampa Bay area to move on, joining the well-established Minotaur robotics team from Middleton Magnet High in Tampa.
Not too shabby for the rookies — and also a bit of a shock.
"When we went into this in January, I had no expectations we would get so far," said Kevin Hudak, 16, the team's lead software developer. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we have to get in a plane in two weeks."
"It feels good," said Thomas Rimos, 17, the team's mechanical leader. "It feels like an honor to be going this far."
FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a nonprofit organization in Manchester, N.H. It was founded in 1989 "to build the next generation of our science and technology leaders" through mentor-based programs and competitions for students ages 6 to 18.
For the FIRST Stronghold Robotics Competition, teams had six weeks to design and build a robot that could mount a strong offense and defense while barreling over, under and through a variety of obstacles on a 25- by 54-foot carpeted field. Competitions unfold with a series of 2-minute, 30-second matches between two opposing alliances of three robotics teams each.
The Royal Robotics' inaugural outing was at the Orlando FIRST Robotics Regional, March 11 and 12 at the University of Central Florida. They ranked 29th out of 63 teams overall and were awarded the Rookie Inspiration Award, given to new teams for excelling in outreach and in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering and STEM programs in schools and the local community.
"In many ways, being recognized for our contributions to our community is a greater honor than anything we could have accomplished on the field," said Sam McAmis., a River Ridge High engineering teacher and club sponsor.
Adding to that, team co-captain Allysa Allen, 17, was selected as a FIRST Dean's List finalist for leadership skills and her overall contributions to the team. She will compete with other finalists for a scholarship at the world championships.
The Royal Robotics fared better at the South Florida Regional, held March 31 to April 2 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. While they struggled with technical difficulties during the qualification round, their defensive strategy appealed to the 744 Shark Attack Team from Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale. They drafted the Royal Robotics to join their alliance for the quarterfinals, making them the only rookie team to compete in the elimination rounds. The alliance was defeated after two hard-fought matches, but, come awards time, it was announced that the Royal Robotics had won the Rookie All-Star award. According to the FIRST website, the award "celebrates the rookie team exemplifying a young but strong partnership effort, as well as implementing the mission of FIRST to inspire students to learn more about science and technology."
It also grants them a berth at the world championships.
In St. Louis, the competition will be much stiffer, McAmis said. "Everybody is going to step up their game, so we have to."
"We're good at defense, so we're going to keep at it," said John Schneider, who, as team scout acts, as a liaison, promoting his team to those forming alliances during final rounds.
Per FIRST rules, teams are not allowed to work on their competition robot until after the initial inspection at the world championships. They can make adjustments to their computer software as well as their practice robot. Those adjustments can then be made to the competition robot in the pits at the world championships.
So, between now and then, no one will be resting on their laurels. Not a problem, said co-captain and team driver Zackary Babcock, 16, who credits McAmis for taking the club above and beyond in his first year as team sponsor.
"We've had three teachers in three years. He came in and stepped up the entire game. We owe much appreciation to him for all the late nights and many hours he's here with us after school — the many pizzas, the coffee," Babcock said. "This is the thing I look forward to when I come to school — coming here every day and building robots with these people."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.