On April 19, the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) international robotics competition kicked off in Houston, Texas. The Berkeley High School Robotics Team, Team Berkelium, qualified for the final round of the competition among the top 28 teams in the world, and ranked seventh place among international competitorss.
Team Berkelium has been working on the robot since the beginning of the year, when the competition was announced. The competition events included various tasks for the robot, such as picking up and placing cubes and cones on a grid, and, at the end, balancing on a platform.
Theo Gerst, Berkelium’s programming lead, explained how climactic this competition was.
“We put in a lot of hours to get a robot to function,” said Gerst. “It can be hard at times because robotics involves a lot of failure, it’s unavoidable. … But that makes the success at the end worth it.”
Earlier this year, the team competed at events in Canada and San Francisco, but were unable to qualify for the international competition at either competition. After making a couple tweaks to their robot, they traveled to Davis, and finally qualified for the FIRST international competition in Houston.
According to the website for the competition, 974 student robotics teams from 59 countries participated. Gerst described the atmosphere: “I mean, it’s different from a regular robotics competition because all the teams there are good at what they do, and they know that they’re good at what they do. There’s a little bit of ego.”
Overall, Gerst believed the team performed well. In past competitions, the robot had completely malfunctioned or lost its connection to the controllers, so several students were always on call. “In between matches, I’m kind of always with the robot because we do a lot of practicing and checking to make sure that all of our systems are still working,” Gerst said.
Lenka Simon, Berkelium’s co-team manager, echoed these sentiments: “We can practice all we want in our shop at Berkeley High, but nothing really translates fully to being like an actual field. So we expect it, we know that it’s not going to go well every time, and we try to do a lot of practicing on the real field and just like, let’s see what breaks.”
Gerst added that in the weeks before the competition, the team added a new mechanism to the robot.
“(We added) this elevator thing that supposedly makes us better at shooting cones,” said Gerst. “It wasn’t perfect but the fact that it didn’t really break, I was very surprised. It was the first time testing it in an actual match. I think it did help us, which is good.”
Other team members watched matches to record stats and assess who they wanted to be aligned with. There are statistics released online but not as specific as what the team was looking for.
Getting to Houston was the first obstacle. After competing in Canada and attending other local competitions, the team was out of funding. A week prior to the trip, the team needed to raise $20,000 in order for 21 students and four chaperones to attend. They created a GoFundMe, which raised nearly $30,000 in three days. Expenses included a registration fee of $5,000 for the competition itself, transportation, food, housing, and scholarships. They also had to pay to transport the robot via truck because the batteries couldn’t go on a plane.
According to Simon, the first round of the competition is 70 qualifying matches over the course of two days. The top eight teams chose three other robots to form their alliance. The second place team chose Team Berkelium to be the fourth robot on their team. Those teams faced off in the playoffs, where there were seven different districts. Then the winners in those seven districts came together to compete in Einstein’s, which was the final round.
Simon elaborated on the atmosphere in the final round. “There were dance performances and there was a marching band, people gave speeches and there was confetti, lights, music, it was insane.”
Gerst reflected on the ceremony. “All teams that are going to Einstein do a little show where you walk across the field. They have this cool lighting and smoke machine thing. … I remember being one of those teams and walking out there and feeling like, wow, we finally made it.”
According to Simon, Houston’s competition marked the end of the robotics season. Team Berkelium’s plan is “to go to competitions that are way less serious and more casual, just to have fun with our robot and train new people,” Simon said.