In order to enter the exciting FIRST Robotics District Competition in New Brunswick this weekend, Holmdel High School's Robotics team had to figure out how to design a little devil that can drop foam basketballs into a hoop, while navigating ramps, bumpers, barriers and five competitors.
A hundred hours later, and $6,500 spent of materials thanks to sponsor JC Penney, the young team members say they've got a slam dunk. The robot is no Jeremy Lin. It literally dumps the ball where it needs to go. But it works.
"Basically, when we started this club we had no idea what we were doing," said junior Kevin Zheng, one of the club's founders. "We are proud we made it into the competition the first year. It's competition capable."
The Holmdel High School Robotics Club kicked off its first year with more than two dozen members, a mix of highschool boys and girls intrigued on figuring out how to bring life to a pile of parts. They call themselves "Singularity" and have a symbol, that looks like this emoticon :3 which they say is a 'smiling cat.'
There is also a very successful Holmdel Rookie Robotics Club, made up of three freshmen. Ninth grader Jesse Stevenson is in both clubs.
Their advisor, Mathew Weisfeld, is a HHS grad as well as a computer and CAD teacher, and someone who tinkers with machines himself as the part-owner of a record-playing turntable-production company. He had his doubts at first on how serious the kids were about venturing into the foreign land of robots. But he couldn't resist their enthusiasm.
"I saw these guys really had their heart into it," said Weisfeld. "So I said, 'Go nuts. Let's go see what happens."
So they did. After some starts and stalls, the team finally pulled itself together when they were given dedicated space to work in the upstairs library equipped with a smart board. They began meeting every day after school, until 4 p.m., fiddling with the chassis, wheels, motor and hundreds of parts from the official 70-lb robot kit. They also used repurposed wood found behind the high school stage, strips of duct tape and pieces of plexiglass. Sometimes the meetings went on until 9 pm. In the last few weeks a few met at friend's houses, and some pulled all-nighters.
"It was interesting, being extremely nerdy for the past two months," said senior Bryan Charalambous, who had been looking forward to kicking back in his final year before he joined Robotics. "I was telling my friends I couldn't hang out because 'I was building a robot,'" he said.
The invention, born of wood and screws, works something like this. A conveyer belt of duct tape mounted on the chassis grabs onto the foam ball and moves it upwards, pressuring it between a tube of plexiglass. The ball drops into a closed container. The robot backs up to an elevated hoop, flips open a door and the ball rolls into the hoop.
Trying to make the robot launch the ball was way too complicated this go-around, the members said.
The team will transport the 50" high robot -- very carefully -- to Rutgers College Avenue Gym for this weekend's event, and hope to post updates on Holmdel Patch. Their team number is 4128. The event is open to the public.
The team is looking to do have a good time, learn a lot and hopefully win something.
"That’s our dream and we’ll going to shoot for it," said Weisfeld.