4-H Tech Club readies its robot for state contest

Riveted on robots

Mentor Anne-Marie Scott and 4-H club members Brenna Scott and Lucas Winkelman work on their robot at a qualifying competition — the Missouri FIRST Tech Challenge — on Jan. 18 in Ballwin.

Mentor Anne-Marie Scott and 4-H club members Brenna Scott and Lucas Winkelman work on their robot at a qualifying competition — the Missouri FIRST Tech Challenge — on Jan. 18 in Ballwin. Photo by Kris Hilgedick.

With a frantic energy, the small robot skittered across the floor. It bumped into a pile of blocks, scooped two up with a scoop shovel, and headed over to a row of baskets. Unassisted by remote control, the robot dumped one of the blocks into a basket, but the other tumbled to the floor.

So close to perfect.

“For the first 30 seconds, it’s autonomous,” said Lucas Winkelman, a member of the Cole County 4-H Tech Club.

Eight teens between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in the club, which focuses its energies on learning about robotics. The group, which built the small robot themselves, is slated to compete in the Missouri FIRST Tech Challenge State Championship, scheduled March 1 at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

At the event, about 30 other robotics groups from a three-state area — Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas — will compete. To win, the students’ robot will have to complete five tasks, including raising a flag, parking on a bridge, hanging from an overhead bar and successfully delivering blocks to their intended locations.

The students spent Tuesday afternoon working to fine-tune their robot’s performance. Specifically, they had to work through why the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. (A bad thumb drive corrupted the information.)

For their robot, the Cole County team chose a rack-and-pinion steering system with omni wheels.

“A lot of teams won’t use omni wheels, but we thought we’d at least try,” said Tessa Uhlmann, 13, of Holts Summit.

“And they work really nicely,” rejoined Brenna Scott, 16, of Tebbetts.

The robot also has eight motors, which presents a different set of challenges.

“One problem of having all the motor-controllers in a row is that they operate like a daisy-chain … it’s like Christmas lights, when one goes out, they all do,” Scott added.

Although fulfilling the five tasks isn’t easy, one of the most-challenging aspects of the contest is getting the robot to perform in an environment where other robots also are moving around. So far the team has built a robot that handles three of the five tasks with ease. But reliably delivering the blocks to the proper basket has proved more elusive.

Winkelman has a plan to pull out a win.

“If we can speed up the autonomous part of the competition and get on the bridge sooner, that would be good,” he said. “The less time you’re doing stuff, the less risk you have (that some other robot) will be bumping into you.”

“The robot has the potential to do all of the challenges,” said Annette Alberts, who hosts the 4-H club in her home.

All of the students are partly or fully home-schooled, Alberts noted, and have the time to devote to the project. She said the club typically meets three times a week, for two- to five-hour sessions. Over the last three years, the team has spent about $5,000 to build the robot.

“It feels like a long time, but you never get enough done,” lamented Uhlmann.

Another component of belonging to the 4-H club is an emphasis on community service. The teens have been in a variety of projects, from hosting Lego block parties at the public library, to designing workshops at the Missouri State Fair and doing presentations for the local Rotary Club.

Alberts said the outreach projects help make the students more well-rounded. “They are supposed to connect with their community. It’s something they do really, really well,” she added.

Regardless of whether they win, just participating puts the students in a good position to earn scholarships later on in life.

Despite the hard work, the teens seemed to enjoy working as a team to troubleshoot problems.

“The robot’s favorite thing is to break,” joked Skyler Winkelman, 12, of Tebbetts.

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