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Irvington’s Low Budget, High Tech ‘BOT’ Battles It Out in Rockland

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March 9, 2024

By Jeff Wilson–

     The contraption parked in the school hallway resembled a lawn mower equipped with a jumble of electrical circuitry, mounted on a base built from a military-grade erector set. Its creators looked on as it advanced a few feet, pivoted once or twice, then fired a large rubber ring spinning like a frisbee six feet into the air.

     The site was Irvington High School; the date was March 5th; the creators were the IHS Robotics Team, and the contraption was a robot, the team’s entry in the FIRST Robotics Competition’s Hudson Valley Regional, an event comprised of 48 teams (four international) taking place from March 7th to 9th at Rockland Community College’s Eugene Levy Fieldhouse. FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology,” is a nonprofit founded by inventor Dean Kamen, whose mission is to inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Kamen came up with the idea of applying these disciplines in a fast-paced sports competition using robots like Irvington’s. (Every team’s robot is purchased from FIRST as a kit; many teams also buy additional parts to modify their vehicles.)

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     The playing field itself is like a hockey rink with various obstacles and receptacles. Robots zip around the field six at a time – achieving speeds of up to 15 feet per second – performing different tasks, like picking up the rings and flinging them into six-foot receptacles—like a basketball player shooting layups.

Not everybody’s idea of a robot, but it is one.

     Benjamin Meyer, the student controlling the machine using a computer and joystick (he’s also one of the co-captains) described the challenges his team had faced during the two months spent building the robot. One setback was the departure of the team’s former advisor, an engineering teacher, leaving the students with more to figure out on their own. “But we kept trying, kept persevering through our failures – and we encountered quite a few,” recalled Meyer, a junior. “To put this season in one word, it would be humbling. We had to ask for a lot more guidance than I thought we would have to because we ran into a lot more issues.” He credited the eventual success to team morale, along with the assistance the crew got from nearby Ossining High School, whose robotics department has a bigger budget, thanks to big-name sponsors. “They (Ossining) helped us with wiring and power regulation,” Meyer explained.

     Getting tips from a competitor accomplishes more than just building a better robot, the student noted. It actually benefits both sides, since teams are rewarded for joining forces (which they do midway into the competition) in order to improve their performance.

     “That was one of our problems last year,” recalled Meyer. “Even though we did pretty well, we didn’t get into any alliances, so we couldn’t proceed further. This year we built a pretty strong relationship with Ossining, so that’s probably going to give us better chances of getting into an alliance.”

     “You get points,” Stefanie Brinkerhoff, the team’s advisor, interjected. “You get points for alliances, for team support, for how many spectators you have, for cooperation… there’s all kinds of ways [to earn points],” stated Brinkerhoff, a special ed teacher’s aide in her first year with the team.

     Co-captain Matthew Besidski elaborated on FIRST’s philosophy of sharing. “They have this thing called Gracious Professionalism. It’s a big deal there, so they try to emphasize cooperation, support…This is why it’s a supportive atmosphere there.”

     There was a division of labor among the four co-captains. Meyer was the computer programmer, responsible for writing the code that controls the motors which in turn control the robot. Besidski was the engineer/builder, who did a lot of the actual construction. Co-captain Adarsh Suresh was an engineer and electrician; credit him for the wiring. Absent from the crew was Benjamin Kasoff, who mans the controls that drive the robot. During this discussion of roles, the students launched into technical explanations of the workings of their product, using terms like roborio (“brain” of the robot) and voltage regulation module.

     Such technical jargon reflected the team’s expertise, but expertise can only go so far; the work ethic has to be there too. Here, Brinkerhoff gave an exhaustive description of the time and physical labor involved. “We’ve only had the kit since January 6, but the kids hit the ground running. The robot was literally in parts and they had to cut everything to size. They had to learn how to use power tools, drills, how to cut plexi[glass].”  Brinkerhoff was just now hitting her stride. “The aluminum, the T-brackets. It’s a whole mechanical thing, an architectural thing, learning angles and how to put it together and reading instructions. We’ve been here every day after school, sometimes till 6:00 p.m.. The dedication of these kids is amazing,” the advisor gushed.

The rest of Irvington’s robot team competing in FIRST

     Expertise. Dedication… Money. All agreed that the team didn’t have enough of it; they yearned for better funding to build the sort of high-end robots they saw in much of their competition. Brinkerhoff marveled that FIRST charged $6,000 just to enter the contest and get the bare-bones kit. “Very basic,” she emphasized, plus “there are multiple other parts that the team must provide on their own. So, to build this robot: about $2,000 or $3,000 just to get it up and running the right way.” Brinkerhoff allowed that the school didn’t fund the team adequately, thus preventing them from getting the materials they needed. Nuts and bolts alone for this year’s bot cost $200, she said. To meet these expenses, “we’re in the process of writing a grant right now,” she said.

Irvington robot race

     The final competition takes place on Saturday.

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