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Students gather in Gwinnett for annual robotics competition

DULUTH - The players thrashed their way across the field, grabbing balls and scoring as many baskets as they could before the buzzer rang. Made of wood, plastic, metal and wires, they demonstrated their remote-controlled athleticism.

It is a different kind of March Madness: one with robots as athletes.

This weekend, the Gwinnett Center is hosting the Peachtree Regional Robotics Competition. The annual U.S. First tournament has attracted more than 45 teams and 2,000 people from the Southeast. The regional will determine which robots, built by high school students, are the best on the field.

Six teams compete at a time, with three of them allied as the red team and three as the blue. Their robots pick up balls, shooting them at giant "baskets" on either side of the 54-feet-long field. For fewer points, they also throw and push balls into corner goals.

Last year's regional champions, the Peachtree Ridge Robolions, were winning many of their matches on Friday. Today they will find out if they can make it to the finals and advance to the world championship competition next month.

While many of the spectators could care less about the Sweet Sixteen or Final Four, they stood screaming their support from the sidelines as they watched the robots score.

"Let's go red! Let's go blue!" they bellowed, as the enthusiastic announcer repeatedly yelled "Booyah!" in response to a play.

Students had six weeks to build a robot with the ability to shoot baskets and roll balls. The largest ones were 5 feet tall, and weighed up to 120 pounds.

Contrary to the competitive spirit of many sporting events, the teams went out of their way to help each other. They are vying for the Regional Chairman's Award, which involves demonstrating a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation.

Peachtree Ridge created playing cards with safety tips and put together a welcome guide for visitors to demonstrate their sportsmanship. Other teams waved international flags, or went out of their way to lend parts and help other teams fix up their robots.

"You're trying to promote the spirit of gracious professionalism," said Sean Macikowski, 17, a junior at Peachtree Ridge. "Most of the people here are cheering for everyone, not just for their team. They're saying, 'It's great if you win; it's good if we win.'"

Many of the teams came wearing matching T-shirts, strings of beads and leis. One school, from Aiken, S.C., took the costumes a step further. They called themselves "M'Aiken Magic," and brought their own mascots: a wizard and a dragon. Their booth was a giant green castle, and many of the team members wore matching wizard's caps.

It is the first year competing for members of the Collins Hill High School robotics team. All of their members last year were seniors. After being recruited for the team, the new members ironically named it "Conscripted Labour."

Many Georgia companies are sponsoring the competition, including Scientific-Atlanta, Georgia Power and BellSouth. EMS Technologies Inc. donated $5,000 and 18 volunteer mentors to help Norcross High School's robotics team.

One of the judges was Jay Grove, senior vice president and general manager of the EMS Defense and Space Systems Division.

"The competition highlights all they have accomplished in taking an objective, devising a solution, managing within very real constraints of time and budget, and delivering a successful product," Grove said.

"I believe that with First, the students, while working with industry mentors, take part in a very real-world engineering experience."

Other Gwinnett robotics teams that competed included Northview and North Gwinnett high schools.

More than 100 of the robotics teams participating in regional events hail from Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico and the United Kingdom. From the 33 regional events across the U.S. and the world, the top 340 teams will advance to the world championship event. It will be held at the Georgia Dome from April 27 to April 29.