Real Robots

Call them GLITCH. Or, GLITCH 5854, to be precise.

Precision is important to this team of high schoolers, professors, college students and volunteers as they work together to build a 6-foot, 150-pound robot that can drive through rough terrain, navigate obstacles, and even shoot a ball through a hoop—all by itself.

The team is participating in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, and has just six weeks to create this impressive robot from the ground up. That means imagining, designing, programming and building from scratch.

“We’re about two and half weeks in,” said Caleb Pohlman, a high school student and captain of the team. “Basically right now our chassis is built, and today we got in a couple more parts …. Hopefully today we’re going to put on the wheels and possibly begin driving.”

Pohlman’s work on this robot really began last semester, when he and 40 other high school students teamed up with student mentors in UNC Asheville’s mechatronics program to design, program and build mini-robots for a smaller, on-campus competition. About half of those students decided to stay on for the next challenge: designing a much larger robot to compete in the regional FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) against 24 other teams in Kimmel Arena, March 19-20, 2016.

In the Pits

Typically the home court of the UNC Asheville Bulldog basketball teams, on March 18 Kimmel Arena will be divided into two sections, with one half holding the competition arena and the cheering spectators. And while you may think the competition area is clearly where all the action will be, Neil Rosenberg, team mentor and lecturer in engineering at UNC Asheville, says that’s not necessarily the case.

“The more interesting half happens on the other side of the curtain,” Rosenberg said. “That’s where the pits are.”

The pits are the 10x10 space each team is allotted for their robot behind the scenes.

“That’s where they go when they break their robot,” Rosenberg explained. “And it’s a flurry of activity: people cutting, welding, drilling, arguing, putting parts on, taking parts off, showing, talking, doing a promotion. And there’s a lot of scouting that goes on.”

Team captains spend part of their time during the competition “scouting” other robots that they want to form an alliance with.

“In the stands, in the pit, in and around the field, there’s not going to be a quiet space of the Sherrill Center,” said Joseph Caswell, a UNC Asheville mechatronics student. “It’s going be full of noise, of robots smashing up against the wall and fans cheering and teams just giving their all.”

Beyond the Robots

Caswell participated in FRC when he was in high school, and now serves as a mentor for the high school students in GLITCH.

“Brilliant, passionate and devoted,” Caswell says of his mentees. “And they’re faced with a massive challenge ahead of them. They’re meeting four days a week, as well as homework over the weekend.”

“They will learn lots of skills,” said Nancy Rosenberg, another mentor for GLITCH, who has been mentoring FRC teams with her husband, Neil Rosenberg, since 2003. “Not just technical skills, but they will learn a lot about marketing their robot, making presentations, fundraising, a lot about time management. These are all life skills that don’t necessarily have to do with a robot, but they learn in the process of building a robot.”

“FRC is not just about developing skills for engineering; it’s not strictly developing a passion for robots,” said Caswell. “It’s really just the opportunity to explore skills that are absolutely necessary in the real world, and doing them in an amazing environment.

“What I’ve taken away is, given the opportunity, high school kids can be capable of so much,” Caswell continued. “Capable of astonishing things. And I really think that’s what FRC is about. Giving youth the opportunity to shine.”