Olathe Northwest robots primed for fights ‘to the death’

Seniors Daniel Baker (left) and Lee Fitchett worked on their battle bot during a class at Olathe Northwest High School. Their team, with its creation, will participate in a National Robotics League competition at the high school Saturday.
Seniors Daniel Baker (left) and Lee Fitchett worked on their battle bot during a class at Olathe Northwest High School. Their team, with its creation, will participate in a National Robotics League competition at the high school Saturday. The Kansas City Star

The first weapon of choice is a shiny steel disc — looking a bit like a yin-yang symbol gone bad.

Consider that the opposite ends of this piece of killer robot machinery stick out as a pair of wicked points that are about to be set in motion at several thousand RPMs.

Dry Bones, one of the National Robotics League teams at Olathe Northwest High School, was ready for a field test in preparation for Saturday’s first-ever Kansas City regional tournament.

That meant placing the metallic menace inside a crude cage of bullet-proof plastic glass along with the helpless steel hulk of an old computer frame.

Weeks of work built up to Saturday’s date with mayhem. Some 20 Olathe Northwest students, divided into four teams, plus a Northland home-schoolers’ team have been working alongside industry mentors.

The Dry Bones machine, under remote control, jumps forward and twists in tight spins, haltingly, as if to gauge its battlefield and its footing.

Many of the students in the high school workshop gather around. Soon its movements get organized, and it’s poised to strike.

The weapon, said 17-year-old senior Lee Fitchett, “is based on the weapon that destroyed my robot last year.”

For several years, Olathe Northwest students have been building robots to take to far-away tournaments in the National Robotics League — where smaller robots engage in a brutally direct competition, unlike the more familiar FIRST Robotics team games.

A year ago, everything went wrong that could have, Fitchett said. They made a poor battery choice. The robot took a hit that set loose toxic gas and then flames and smoke. They had to clear the room.

“We were done,” Fitchett said.

This year’s machine, when driver Daniel Baker sends it zipping at its practice target, wedges its scooped front plate underneath the metal computer frame, driving it into the vertical spinning destroyer.

The bangs thunder from the cage. The computer frame is summarily bashed, dented and tossed.

It’s no easy course getting to this point — which is part of the lesson that teachers and the industry supporters want to embed in this death sport.

The National Tooling and Machining Association is sponsoring this first Kansas City regional, including the giant battle cage, so students can get a close look at the exhaustive — but engaging — work done by designers, engineers and machiners.

Consider the next weapon of choice: Death Oreo.

Its Olathe team has taken the same kind of ominous steel points as Dry Bones but carved them on a steel ring that spins like a horizontal circular saw.

If a rival bot were to flip it over, the Death Oreo, like the cookie, has no upside-down. Either way, it can roll.

But this horizontal design presented many durability puzzles.

One Saturday afternoon in particular, Olathe Northwest’s battle bots class teacher Matt Peterie said, Death Oreo team members met with mentor Steve Zollman of A & E Custom Manufacturing in Kansas City.

What was a planned 30-minute session turned into a three-hour design review, Peterie said.

Many of the students’ ideas cost too much to manufacture. Others have flaws. It’s all part of the learning process, Peterie said.

“They’ll say, ‘I like your thinking.’ ‘The solution is hard.’ ‘You’re not there yet.’”

They must design knowing their creations are going to be brutally abused. The machines must absorb and endure and be quickly repairable for the next match.

After all, Peterie said, “the robots will battle to the death.”

The mentors and their shops are donating most of their time and machinery, Peterie said, which means a process that would otherwise cost some $5,000 per robot ends up around $1,000.

The industry supporters think they are investing in talent, said Michael Bohning, president of Creative Blow Mold Tooling in Lee’s Summit.

“We want to educate them and their parents about the opportunities that exist,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is attracting good, solid employees. We need to grow our own talent.”

If they’re looking for the kind of talent that deploys vertical “eggbeaters” — the third weapon of choice — the robotics competition has got that covered, too.

Team Bullet Bill and Team Elmer’s robots both are incorporating eggbeaters, which look more like steely edged bicycle pedals that become terrifying blurs when set spinning.

All of this weaponry action is viewed only through the cage’s hefty glass, even in testing. Can’t let these robots run uncaged.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

National Robotics League Kansas City Regional

Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Olathe Northwest High School, 21300 College Blvd., Olathe. Admission is free.