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Robots. Good or evil?
Until they're sentient, it all depends on who programs and pilots them. And over at Princess Margaret Secondary, the kids in charge seem to be on the side of right.
Four times a week between the hours of 3:00 and 6:30 pm, a group of high school students ranging from Grade 9 through 12 get together in the Princess Margaret computer lab. They seem pretty tight like a bunch of good friends, but they also act like teammates.
And that's because they are.
They're the Penticton Robotics Team, and right now they're hard at work on the most exciting opportunity they've ever had.
If they play their cards right, in February of 2023 they'll accompany the robot they’re building -- all 120 pounds of it -- to Victoria for the 2023 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.
There, they'll square off against 50 other teams from across the province in battles of robotic skill, dexterity and overall awesomeness.
And if they manage to score a top-three finish in that competition -- and they stand a decent chance given that they finished third in the most recent Victoria saw-off in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 -- they'd head all the way to Houston, Texas in April for the World Championship.
Pretty cool, huh?
"The Penticton Robotics Team was founded in 2019 by a Pen Hi student," said Build Team Leader Marcus Francesco when we swung by the school Tuesday afternoon. "That was the first year. In 2020 and 2021 we were shut down by COVID so now we're back at it again."
Team Coordinator Scarlett Steyn clarified that the squad is not a class, nor is it affiliated with any one school.
"Right now, we're all students of this school," she said, "but we do try to draw kids from elsewhere. Pen Hi, maybe Summerland. Depends if they can get here."
But one thing's for sure -- they all have an interest in robotics and in getting themselves to Victoria. And then Texas.
"These robots aren’t designed to battle each other," said Francesco, putting to rest any idea that the competition will resemble the bot-bashing craziness of TV shows like BattleBots.
"They're designed to complete specific tasks, kind of simplified versions of tasks that need to be done in the real world, like energy production or energy sustainability or transportation. But the competition is simplified down to get kids to create new ideas and build robots."
The team's robot, as it currently stands, is only partially complete. It is essentially a mobile platform for whatever will eventually be built on top of it.
"It weighs about 40 pounds right now," said Francesco. "But it'll be more like 120 when it’s done."
Being "done" can't happen at present because the team -- and every other team for that matter -- won't know the nature of the challenge in Victoria until January. That's the way it is in the robot game.
"This is the foundation that allows us to move around," said Social Media/Marketing Coordinator Devon Jones. "When the official purpose and theme of the competition is revealed on January 7th, we'll build on top of that."
In 2019, robots were asked to distribute objects called "power cells" across a surface.
"We'll build whatever is needed to complete the challenge," said Francesco, the only remaining member of the 2019 squad. "In 2019 we had a winch, a big structure on top, a bucket on the front that picked up balls, a lot of pistons, motors, electronics. A lot of metal.
"It picked up power cells, distributed them around a map and put them in specific locations, all within a time limit. The more cells we distributed, the more points we got."
But piecing together the robot from parts sourced through the competition's catalogue is one thing. Programming it is something else entirely.
It's done from scratch using the Java programming language. Thus far, Francesco has written the code. But teammate and Lead Programmer Branson Crawford will handle the rest of it as the bot becomes more complex.
"I started off learning Java in Grade 11," said Crawford. "Over the summer I took a lot of coding courses and that helped me a lot with problem-solving. Eventually in Grade 12 I learned about the robotics program and joined.
"Programming is what I want to do. I'd like to be a game dev(eloper) one day."
PentictonNow had a brief chance to pilot the contraption using an Xbox controller (some teams use joysticks or flightsticks), and had an absolute blast. It accelerates almost instantly, turns on a proverbial dime, and goes exactly where you want it to go. It feels fast, powerful and adept.
We found it difficult to hand over the controller when our session ended.
But hand it over we did. Then we asked the group why the average Pentictonite should care that the team is doing what it's doing.
And we got some good answers.
"It shows what Penticton youth is capable of," said Financial Coordinator Drew Ashton, who seeks out the bucks the team needs to go after its goals.
"The members of this team have the opportunity to learn valuable and in-demand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills that they'll utilize throughout life. The kids in this room are the future, and are next to take to occupations behind future advances in technology that will make your, and future generations, lives easier."
"We learn a lot from this," added Team Coordinator Steyn, who watches over all facets of the organization and opened our eyes to all it entails.
"When you think about a robotics team, you think about the big robot skills. But there are a lot of other skills that go into this. You learn financial skills, you learn fundraising skills, you learn business, you learn coding, building, designing. There are a lot of moving pieces to it."
Just as importantly, she said, female and male team members are on even footing.
"My mom says that when she was my age, she wouldn’t be doing anything like robotics. She'd be helping out in the sewing club. It's definitely better now. It's a changing world."
And now, as the team gears up for Victoria and hopefully Houston, the funding push has taken centre stage. The goal was $23,000. There's still $15,000 to go.
"If you’re on the marketing team," said Financial Coordinator Ashton, "you learn communication skills, how to behave in a professional manner as you reach out to companies. And you get over your fears so it's easier for you in the future."
According to Ashton, the team raises all the money it potentially needs. Most of the bucks come from "local businesses around town and sponsors."
Currently the chief sponsor, flooring business NuFloors Penticton also backed the team in 2019. The remainder of the income thus far has been derived through donations, fees, and left-over funds from 2019. But Ashton expects that to change as fundraising ramps up.
"Sponsors get their names on the robot, on team apparel, on our website and in our social medias," he said. "The more support they give us, the more exposure they get."
The team is also actively pursuing more members, and would love to see representation from other area schools.