By Kelin Graul
After six months of intense planning, programming, and construction, Arcadia High School (AHS) sisters, junior Renee and sophomore Isabella (Bella) Heinrichs, led their Girl Scouts team, Rock N’ Roll Robots, to victory at the recent West Super-Regional “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” (FIRST) Tech Challenge (FTC). The Heinrich sisters and their team will now face their toughest competition yet at April’s FTC World Championship in Houston, Texas. Engineering this success, however, has required extensive work.
According to its website, FTC allows student teams to “design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge.” During the challenge, each robot must complete various tasks, such as shooting balls called “particles” into a hoop known as the “center vortex,” pressing buttons on the arena’s walls to assign beacons to the correct color, and placing
yoga balls called “cap balls” over the center vortices.
As Rock N’ Roll Robots’ team captain, Renee ensures that everyone stays on task, works together with the other captains, and maintains a smooth plan for progress. As build captain, Bella also wears the hat of workshop and safety captain, overseeing many areas for the team, such as design, modeling, inventory, and the building process.
“When the season began in September, we instantly started brainstorming and planning our robot based on the game,” Bella said. Using the computer-aided design program known as Solidworks, Rock N’ Roll Robots began the prototyping stage by modeling various mechanisms.
They corrected errors and made improvements during the testing stage. And finally, they voted on their preferred mechanisms and completed the robot. These mechanisms include mecanum wheels that let the robot move in any direction, a cap ball mechanism to lift the yoga ball into the scoring zone, and two button-pushers to press the buttons that change the beacon colors. After being collected through a device called “flower power,” particles are transported up into the “lexan launcher,” which shoots them into the goal.
These effective devices reinforced the team’s success throughout the competition.
After competing in the qualifying rounds, Rock N’ Roll Robots advanced to the LA/SoCal Regionals, where they faced 48 other teams. “At the LA Championships, our robot just kept breaking,” Renee said. Working through these setbacks, the team performed well enough to be chosen for alliance selections. During alliance selections, the top four teams from the qualifying rounds chose two more teams that they wanted to play with, participating in additional competition rounds. “From beginning to end, there was always something to do,” said Bella.
Other AHS students, including those from service organizations Leo Club and Key Club, also came to support the competition as volunteers. “It was awesome to see great organizations from our school participating in the competition and representing Arcadia!” Renee said.
Advancing to the West Super-Regional Championship, held March 10 – 12, Rock N’ Roll Robots traveled to Tacoma, Washington to compete against the nation’s top six percent of teams hailing from 13 western states. Unfortunately, problems arose, and the team spent much of its time fixing them. “One of the wheels broke, our phones weren’t connecting, and we had problems with the lighting throwing off our autonomous color sensor,” Bella explained.
However, on the final day, the team’s robot finally started to work perfectly. Throughout Sunday’s first match, they scored several particles and captured three of the four beacons, and their alliance partner successfully capped the cap ball. They ended with a score of 255 points, making it one of their best matches. Renee said, “Our judging session was also amazing, and over eleven judges came over to speak and take pictures with us.”
Halfway through the awards ceremony, the team had to race over to the airport to catch the flight back to California. “We left without knowing if we’d advanced or won an award. Only one team member could stay for the ceremony, so we stayed on the phone with her the entire time,” said Bella. While driving to the airport, the team heard the judges over the phone presenting the winners of the third place Inspire Award. “We couldn’t hear anything over the yelling, and then we suddenly heard, ‘We just won third place Inspire!’”
The team was ecstatic; some members began crying, while others were shocked. As the top award of the competition, the Inspire Award is given to the team that fully embodies and incorporates all aspects of FIRST. These aspects include not only technical factors, but also respect and professionalism, a positive team dynamic, and clear communication. Renee recalled, “We were all so happy about advancing to Worlds that we screamed out loud in the car. After so much excitement and bonding, we lost our voices when we got home.”
Rock N’ Roll Robots is now preparing for the final tournament. The FTC World Championship is the highest level of competition, bringing together the top teams from around the world. “I’m thrilled about going to Worlds and spending more time with my team,” Renee said. “The competition will be way more intense, but I’ve had lots of fun with everyone, and I’m just proud that we’ve worked so hard.”