Machines will be out to crush — or at least maim — each other in a Liberty arena this month. But we’re not talking about monster trucks. This competition is all about robots.
Started in 2014, the BotsKC competition pits the creations of middle school, high school and college students against each other. In short, it’s combat robotics.
“They’re basically battle bots. It’s a fight to the death,” said Ashley Gorman, program manager at BotsKC.
Both Olathe Northwest High School and Summit Technology Academy have gone to the national competition in Pennsylvania in previous years, and they’re gearing up for this year’s matches.
Teams remotely control their 15-pound robots for a three-minute bout. If both robots are still standing at the end, judges make the call as to who won the match. If a team’s robot gets disabled, part of the challenge is to fix it up quickly so it’s ready for the next match.
“It’s a rush when you’re fighting, and when you get out of the match, everyone scrambles,” said 18-year-old Alex Howard, a senior at Olathe Northwest. “It’s not necessary to have a large team — just a very coordinated team.”
There’s more than one way to win a match.
“A lot of times you’ll want to have a weapon. Nowhere in the rules does it say you have to have a weapon; you still can win without it,” said Eric Walters, who teaches in the engineering department at Summit Tech. “It’s more making decisive moves to pin somebody in the corner or get them so their wheels won’t work. Sometimes, it’s being the Artful Dodger.”
In designing their robots, students have to prioritize things like a bigger battery versus a heavier weapon to stay under the 15-pound limit. Aircraft-grade aluminum is a popular construction material because it’s both light and fairly sturdy, while also being inexpensive.
The students have been working on their robots since September just for this competition. Olathe Northwest will send three teams with different robots to the competition; Summit Tech will send one team.
BotsKC is part of the National Robotics League. The program sounds like it’s all fun and games, but there’s a serious purpose behind the competition.
“We’re a manufacturing workforce development program,” Gorman said. “Students are learning skills they would use in future manufacturing. … Most people aren’t aware of how high tech and skilled you have to be to fill these positions.”
The idea is to develop talent for both engineering and machining jobs, although not everyone will choose to follow that path.
Most students have experience with computer-aided design programs that allow them to make 3-D blueprints for parts, but not everything they design on a computer holds up to real-world engineering.
“I didn’t expect the transition from CAD to reality. Sometimes things don’t work in reality,” said 18-year-old Alec Hite, a senior at Olathe Northwest.
Teams must document the whole building process and be able to explain each step. They also partner with places like Unitech in Lee’s Summit or Technics 2000 in Olathe as industry mentors.
The mentoring can be exchanging emails about design ideas, or it can be students going to the companies and either using their equipment to machine parts or explaining their ideas so employees there can construct the parts from the students’ designs.
“Students have to create the drawings to communicate what they want made. We have the kids go to the shop so they can learn about the equipment and the manufacturing process,” said Matt Peterie, who teaches both physics and engineering at Olathe Northwest. “Basically, we use the robot as the carrot at the end of the stick to engage the students, to motivate them.”
At Olathe Northwest, the robot-building is part of the classwork in the Engineering Academy, but at Summit Tech, it’s an after-school activity.Coaching the teams can be just as much fun for the teachers as it is for the students.
“For me as a teacher, this is like recess at the end of the day,” Peterie said.
The competition, located at 2901 Heartland Drive in Liberty, will be open to the public. It starts at 5 p.m. Friday, April 5 and continues at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 6.