The Gunnery Gears to Compete in Two Robotics Competitions

The Gunnery Gears Team 6811 will be among 39 high school teams participating in the FIRST® Robotics Competition this weekend at Woodstock Academy, 57 Academy Road, Woodstock, Connecticut. The Northern Connecticut District event is organized by NE FIRST®, the operational partner of FIRST Robotics in the six New England states. The Gunnery team will participate in a second New England district event March 6‒8 at Wilby High School in Waterbury.

Now in its third year of competition, The Gunnery team currently consists of 18 students who were either enrolled in robotics classes or participated in robotics as a co-curricular program during the winter term. The team is led by MaryAnn Haverstock, Director of the IDEAS Lab, a STEM-based program that combines science and engineering with hands-on creativity and problem-solving skills.

All teams received their 2020 challenge instructions on January 4 and had eight weeks to design and build a robot to complete specific tasks. “This year FIRST is teaming up with Disney and Lucasfilm as part of the Star Wars: Force for Change initiative,” actor Mark Hamill, who portrayed Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, said in a video announcing the theme for this year’s global competition.

Students ages 14-18, including those representing The Gunnery Gears, will compete in the game, INFINITE RECHARGE℠, in which an incoming asteroid shower threatens FIRST City. Using “alliance droids” (or robots from different teams who work together), the “planetary citizens” (team members) will be challenged to “collect and store power cells” (yellow balls that are smaller than a basketball) in a “power port” (or tower).

The goal is to score points by placing balls in the upper and lower openings of the tower. Points are also awarded if a robot can hang successfully from a “generator switch,” or high bar, in the center of the field, or if two robots can hang concurrently to get the generator switch to the level position. The alliance that accumulates the most points wins the match.

The team is hoping to achieve a high-level climb this year, using telescoping arms that extend six feet. Instead of designing a robot that would place balls in the towers using pistons or a scissor lift, the team developed a launching mechanism complete with rotary encoders that can align the ball at the correct angle to reach the target. In other words, the robot should have better aim.

“We have the power cells – lemons, we call them. They go in this shooter and it launches them across the field,” explained Maxwell Rhodes ’20, who has been on the robotics team all three years. He credited Taiken Matsuzawa '23, who is new this year, with writing the code for the rotors. “Taiken’s done a lot of the math to make that happen, which is very complicated. All the code is his from the ground up.”

Matsuzawa said he used calculus and physics to determine the angles at which the robot would need to launch the ball given other factors, such as the size of the target, depth and distance, before writing the code in Java. He learned how to code in the coding club at his elementary school in Japan. C++ is his favorite programming language. 

Everyone on the team brings different skill-levels and experience. Rhodes has taught everything from introductory robotics to rocket science at a summer STEM and design camp.  Liam Stewart ’22 is proficient in 3-D printing, machine work, and can wield a plasma cutter, while Matsuzawa and Henry Barthelemy '21 have coding experience. Others, like Riley Hurley ’21, who built a moped last summer, and Matt Piazza ’22, who plans to build a go-kart this year, have been tinkering at home in workshops or garages for years. 

“It’s all hands-on,” said Andi Bettinger '21, who noted that the early stages of the project were all about trial and error. Once the team understood how to build a basic robot, they were “thinking of how we could make it better and trying it out and seeing how we could make it better. We understood what we had to do but we spent more time planning and thinking."

Asked why she decided to enroll in robotics class, Bettinger said for her, the notion of spending time thinking of her own ideas and not just interpreting the ideas of others held some appeal. “I enjoy writing and reading and history,” she said. But, she added, “It was nice to hands-on do stuff for the first time. Everyone was really respectful. I wasn’t super good at drilling at first but no one talked down to me and I feel like I’m a true part of the team.”

The opening ceremony at Woodstock Academy will be held on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and qualification matches run throughout the day until 7 p.m. Qualification matches continue on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. followed by final rounds from 2 to 5 p.m. and an awards ceremony. Fans of The Gunnery Gears can follow along on Twitch TV