Student-made robots face off in techno-thriller

DULUTH - Most sporting events don't include flying inner tubes, joysticks and scores determined by exponents. But then, most sporting events also have humans on the field.

At the FIRST Robotics Competition, held this weekend at the Gwinnett Center, the excitement in the stands rivaled that of a football game as nearly 50 teams, including five from Gwinnett, battled to go to the international championships at the Georgia Dome next month.

Teams each had six weeks and several thousand dollars to build a robot capable of placing plastic inner tubes over metal spindles on a structure that looked like it belonged in a water park. Humans controlled the robots using joysticks or, in one case, a rewired guitar from the video game "Guitar Hero."

Peachtree Ridge's team, whose members used the guitar to control a robot whose claw raised and lowered like an elevator, had more than 40 members building the machines for competition.

Michael Strain, a senior, said he got the idea for a guitar controller after playing the game at a friend's house every weekend. He was disappointed that Peachtree Ridge did not make the championship - no Gwinnett team did from this competition - but said he was pleased with the team's success.

Alicen Spurlin, a Norcross High School freshman, controlled the arm for that team's robot. Her parents have been involved with the program for years, and she said she was glad to be behind the scenes, and not just watching.

"It's a lot of fun, there's so much adrenaline pumping," she said. "There's nothing like this. It's like a football game, but better. There's more action."

The competition looked, in part, like a large-scale Connect Four game - teams tried to make columns or rows of their own colored inner tubes, with points determined by exponents of two for how many a team placed in a row.

Because there were eight spindles on each of three levels, the highest possible score a team could get on one level was 256 points, two to the eighth power. The scoring helps students when they learn binary code, volunteers said.

Additional points could be earned if robots were able to go up a ramp in the two-minute period before each match ended.

Schools competed in alliances of three teams on each side.

Charles Guan, a North Gwinnett High School senior, said the competition was difficult, but he loved it.

"It's the hardest fun ever," he said. "It's worth it for what you learn."

Charles said in the school's second year of competition, their team did far better than it had at first, advancing to the quarterfinals. Scott Oliveira, a senior and Guan's co-captain, said the most exciting part for him is being able to look at the robots on the ground and see something he made.

"You go to the stands and everyone's so excited," he said. "You don't have to love robots to love it."

Diane Cass, who is a sponsor of Peachtree Ridge's team, said the competitors are the future engineers in the country. Many of the seniors said they would be going to college to study engineering, and a number of alumni from that school and others came back to cheer on their former teammates.

Colleen Smith's son, Tanner, is a freshman on the Peachtree Ridge team. Smith said she was impressed by the quality of the robots and the fairness of the competition. Even after her team had been eliminated, she stood to watch the final rounds, which she likened to finals in tennis tournaments.

Patrick Sanders, a North Gwinnett sophomore, said he lost his voice cheering.

"It's a lot like other sporting events, there's just a lot of energy here," he said. "It's just as intense."