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River Ridge team readies for big robotics competition in Orlando

Students Jessie Linares, 15, left, and Allysa Allen, 17, right, get help from teacher Sam McAmis on the River Ridge Royal Robotics team’s final version of a robot for the Orlando Regional FIRST Robotics Competition March 11 and 12.
Students Jessie Linares, 15, left, and Allysa Allen, 17, right, get help from teacher Sam McAmis on the River Ridge Royal Robotics team’s final version of a robot for the Orlando Regional FIRST Robotics Competition March 11 and 12.
Published Mar. 3, 2016

NEW PORT RICHEY

Amid a flurry of activity punctuated by the buzz of power drills and a working band saw, Allysa Allen, 17, slid her safety glasses up from her face and took stock of the cooperative effort going on in the River Ridge High School Academy of Engineering classroom and workshop.

The six-week build season for the Orlando Regional FIRST Robotics Competition was drawing to an end. It was crunch time for the school's Royal Robotics crew, particularly Allen, who was overseeing the building of the team robot with her co-leader, Zachary Babcock, 16.

"There's wiring going on. The drive train is being put together," Allen said, adding that another student was working on the watering system and the noise emanating from the back of the classroom meant side panels would soon be ready for mounting.

In just a few days — at midnight Feb. 23 to be precise — the 15-member team would cease work on the robot they had designed for the FIRST competition, which will be March 11 and 12 at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"It's like a full-time job. I've put in over 175 hours in the last five weeks," Jessie Linares, 15, said as she combed the classroom for a special-size bolt. "But it's fun — what we call hard fun."

Whether the robot was finished or not, the Royal Robotics team would have to "tag and bag" it in the presence of an adult witness, in accordance with the rule that there would be no more work or improvements made until after the initial inspection at competition.

"Am I worried? Yes," said Allen. "Am I going to show that I'm worried? No."

There is a little pressure. The Royal Robotics is the first team from a Pasco County public school to go to FIRST. They will be joined by a couple of other local teams. The Wildcats robotics team will represent Academy at the Lakes private school in Land O'Lakes. The Land O'Lakes Library Edgar Allan Ohms robotics team, made up of students from throughout the county, will be the first group to represent a public library at FIRST.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization based in Manchester, N.H. It was founded in 1989 "to build the next generation of our science and technology leaders" through various mentor-based programs/competitions for students ages 6 to 18.

The Orlando Regional, founded in 1999 and originally held at the Kennedy Space Center, is one of several regional competitions that draw competitors from throughout the world. Some 3,500 students representing 65 teams from 40 Florida high schools, along with teams from across the United States, the Netherlands and China, will compete at this year's regional event.

The robotics 2016 Engineering Challenge, known as FIRST Stronghold!, follows a complex, medieval battle-type theme. Teams first brainstorm a thoughtful strategy, then design a robot using computer-aided design. The Royal Robotics' six-wheel robot must be able to move over rough terrain, shoot and block 10-inch "boulders," scale a 6-foot-4 tower for extra points and wage a strong defense against other robots, all on a 25- by 54-foot carpeted field.

"You start from scratch. You get the challenges. You get the parameters, and you have to create something from nothing," Allen said. "It's really a cumulative effort."

The competition unfolds with a series of 2-minute, 30-second matches between two opposing alliances of three robotics teams each. For the first 15 seconds, the robot must move autonomously. After that, two student team "drivers" move the robot using a wireless remote control.

Winners of regional competitions, as well as teams that garner awards in various categories, move on to the world championships in St. Louis. The program also awards student scholarships, with some $25 million available this year.

River Ridge High engineering teacher and club sponsor Sam McAmis has high regard for his team's effort and thinks that will reflect well during competition. The team members and three adult mentors have shown up regularly after school and on weekends to work.

"All the hard part is done. I'm really impressed with them," he said.

McAmis has experience to draw on.

He competed in FIRST competitions as a student at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs and served as a mentor for robotics teams while studying mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida.

School district officials are pleased, too.

"We're really excited to have the first FIRST robotics team competing this year. It takes a special teacher to be able to do this" said Terry Aunchman, director of career and technical education for the Pasco schools. "(McAmis's) students did an amazing job fundraising. It takes an incredible amount of money to go to FIRST."

The Royal Robotics team has been proficient, raising $20,000 by procuring grants from organizations like NASA, Southern Manufacturing Technologies in Tampa and the school's advisory committee. The team's community outreach in promoting STEM programs in the community has drawn positive attention from donors, McAmis said, whether it be talking with students and parents at school STEM fairs or firing off at various school and community events the T-shirt cannon robot they designed.

That has been a big hit at school football games and pep rallies and at the local Christmas parade, Allen said. "Everybody loves the T-shirt robot."

The money raised has propelled the team — covering the $6,000 registration fee, the cost of building the competitive robot and a prototype that might give the team an edge when it comes to the FIRST Rookie All-Star award.

"It's good to have a robot you can test ahead of time -— especially for a rookie team," McAmis said.

No doubt, the Royal Robotics team is aiming high. Many team members plan to further their education in the engineering field, and a showing at FIRST bodes well on student resumes.

"This is the NFL of robotics. It's the biggest you can be," said team member Dwight Howard, 17, adding that there is another important component to the competition.

"FIRST has a very spirit-based philosophy. There's a synergy, where everyone has to work together — a general rule of gracious professionalism," Howard said, adding that while teams are competitive, they also lend a hand to struggling teams, whether it be a needed spare part or helping out in the pit.

"The competition is what we're going after, but how we work with other teams counts more."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com. Follow @Michele Miller52.