Using a 9-volt battery and a computer chip, 14-year-old Ryan Olehausen designed a contraption that can navigate itself through a maze.
“At first it looked really difficult,” the high school sophomore says as he plugs his robot into the computer. “But it’s all about solving problems. You have to keep making minor tweaks and changes.”
Robotics has changed the childhood hobby of designing and racing cars into a complex competition involving electronics, engineering and technological know-how.
“The hardest part is figuring out the programs on the computers,” Olehausen says. “But it’s fun. I really enjoy it.”
On Saturday, Olehausen will pit his robot against at least a dozen others at Mesquite High School’s first robotics competition.
FUN TO RACE, FUN TO WATCH
For competitors, the experience of building and showing off a robot is uniquely rewarding, but robotics competitions are also a fun spectator sport, says Andrew Michalicek, member of the Phoenix Area Robotics Experimenters and a robotic engineer at Honeywell.
“It’s fun to go. It’s fun to take young kids to them,” Michalicek says. “While you’re there, you’re seeing different kinds of competitions and the excitement of robots going head to head.”
In the past decade, robotic competitions have grown into a popular entertainment activity, with the biggest boost coming a few years ago with the debut of the reality show “Robot Wars.”
The competitions are open to all robotics engineers, but the hobby is most popular among teenage boys.
“A lot of kids today don’t feel that they have a whole lot of influence on the world around them,” Michalicek says. “When they get involved in making these small robots and they program these robots to do what they want, I think in many ways it opens up their eyes.”
Andrew Titmus, 17, searches through a bucket of screws and steel rods for a part for his robot.
“We have no way to screw this down,” he says as he fiddles with the wedge-shaped contraption.
“We might have to zip-tie the motor,” says Calvin Wong, his 18-year-old engineering partner.
For the past few weeks, the boys have been assembling their sumo bot, whose job will be to seek out and push its robot competitor out of a 10-by-10-foot ring.
“We named the bot Gorgonzola,” Titmus says. “It looks like a cheese wedge, so we had to have a cool cheese name.”
Besides sumo, the competition categories include running mazes and following a line track using sensors.
But the sumo bots category is one of the most exciting parts of the competition, says Rick Ford, a electronics and engineering teacher at Gilbert’s Mesquite High School.
“The kids love to get out there and knock stuff together,” he says.
Mesquite High School added robotics to its curriculum in 2004. As part of Ford’s class, students engineer all types of robots to compete.
“The kids learn computer programming, engineering, drafting skills and electronics,” Ford says. “And the competition is the culmination of all that.”
Besides being a fun class, robotics engineering is an important skill that will help the students once they get into the workforce, he says.
For Titmus, the robot competition makes a semester’s worth of studying and work exciting.
“It gives you a sense of pride that you’ve created something really cool,” he says. “Watching it run in circles on the floor isn’t near as exciting as watching it battle in the ring.”
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mesquite High School, 500 S. McQueen Road, Gilbert
Cost: Free admission; $10 entry fee for adults, $5 for children
Information: (480) 632-4750 or www.phoenixrobotics.org