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Tampa Bay area teens are hooked on robots

TAMPA

They operated on electricity and adrenaline.

Sleep-deprived teens clutched joysticks that controlled human-sized robots as they whirred across the slippery floor Saturday at the annual Tempest 'N' Tampa robotics competition.

Some of the 5-foot, 120-pound robots in the University of South Florida's Sun Dome looked like wire cages with motors, other were crafted with PVC pipes. One looked a lot like a bagless vacuum cleaner.

One of the day's activities was the Lunacy challenge: Students had to use their 'bots to get balls into the other teams' trailers, which were dragged behind their machines. At the same time, they had to avoid having balls dumped into theirs.

"3 … 2 … 1 … go!" the announcer yelled, as techno music boomed over the speakers. The six robots were off, and Hillsborough High School's Hydra was one of them.

Sophomore Garrett Luzadder's eyes focused on the Hydra robot from behind his plastic protective glasses. He manned the joystick, but the slick floor made for tough turning.

He slid Hydra up to the No. 21 robot, and Hydra's conveyor belt pushed a ball into its opponent's trailer. "If I had 10 seconds longer, I could have put in a bunch more," Garrett, 15, said.

But at the Tempest 'N' Tampa, it's not just about winning. The 24 high school teams from across Florida — and one from Georgia — came to the off-season competition for fun.

On Friday night, the students spread sleeping bags across the Sun Dome's floor. But they didn't sleep much. "There's a lot of programming, and a lot of video games," explained Garrett.

And a lot of camaraderie. Everyone helps each other, said A.J. Foster, a sophomore. He was up at 2 a.m., aiding another team with its programming.

"It's a lot of fun," A.J., 15, said. "We get to come up with ideas and then make them work."

Then they get to compete.

"It's chaotic, and that adds to the excitement," Garrett said.

The competition is organized by Tarpon Spring's East Lake High School. Senior Jacob Paikoff, 17, said the Lunacy event's field was designed to simulate the moon — which is why it didn't have much friction.

Jacob said he stayed after school to work on East Lake's robot, which took six weeks to build. He recently applied to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and he plans to major in mechanical engineering.

That's what robotics clubs are all about, said Paul Wahnish, East Lake's engineering teacher, who started the event. "The idea is for them to take what they're learning in the classroom and use it in the real world," he said. "They get to see that what they're learning has practicality."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Tampa Bay area teens are hooked on robots 10/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 25, 2009 1:18pm]

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