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SCV students build robots to gain skills

Posted: March 14, 2014 10:27 p.m.
Updated: March 14, 2014 10:27 p.m.
Members of the Hart School District robotics team assemble a “shooter” at West Ranch High School on Friday in preparation for the Los Angeles Regional Robotics Competition on March 22. Members of the Hart School District robotics team assemble a “shooter” at West Ranch High School on Friday in preparation for the Los Angeles Regional Robotics Competition on March 22.
Members of the Hart School District robotics team assemble a “shooter” at West Ranch High School on Friday in preparation for the Los Angeles Regional Robotics Competition on March 22.

Four Santa Clarita Valley high school students in black suits flanked a 120-pound robot and its driver last weekend as they made their way to “the pit” for a battle of the ‘bots in Central California.

Now the William S. Hart High School Union School District robotics team, Project 691, is moving on to the Los Angeles Regional competition at Long Beach Arena on March 22.

The 30 to 40 club members have been preparing for this competition for months, and they have received their challenge.

In a football field-sized arena, six competing robots must successfully pass a 24-inch exercise ball from one robot to the other — without dropping it.

“That first moment, when you learn the task, can be intimidating,” said Aaron Dolgin, a five-year member of the team and senior at West Ranch High School, the campus that houses Project 691’s work station.

“You have second thoughts: ‘How are we going to approach this?’”

Project 691, one of two teams in the Hart district, is part of the rapidly growing world of high school competition robotics, which provides students from Santa Clarita to Tel Aviv, Israel, a chance to build robots and test their skills in challenge-specific battles.

“Students get to see the things they learn in math and physics have real, practical applications,” said Rich Petras, the lead mentor and an employee of SpaceX.

The league’s host program, FIRST, was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. Since then, FIRST competitions have moved to a national and international stage, garnering the same enthusiasm, fanfare and consuming devotion as CIF championships.

And the competition is fierce.


Build season

Before Project 691 can begin “build season” — the six-week period of building before a competition — members must secure a hefty sum of money to fund their project.

For the L.A. Regional, it will take about $5,000 to build the robot and another $5,000 to register for the first competition, Dolgin said. The total budget for a regional competition falls between $10,000 and $12,000, according to the FIRST handbook.

Lucky for Dolgin, he is the team’s well-connected vice president of business and marketing — and pretty good at talking his way into sponsorships.

“This year is one of the better years,” he said. “I’ve learned how to communicate with complete strangers to ask for sponsorships.”

Dolgin sets up cold-call business meetings, presents a proposal and asks for a little help. Local companies have provided anything from funding to parts to labor to mentors, he said.

“Bayless Engineering will order raw materials for us, cut it using their laser technology and fabricate parts for us,” he said.



Once funding is secured, the team receives their challenge video, detailing the task at hand for the upcoming competition.

“The challenge this year is aerial assist,” Dolgin said. “We’re switching from a punching style (robot) to a catapult style.”

For regionals, Project 691 will earn extra points if its robot can shoot the ball through different goal posts or over a bridge, he said.

The competing teams will form temporary alliances, moving up through different rounds as they win.

Alliances are formed like a dodgeball team on the playground: Winning teams get first pick, he said.

If Project 691 makes it far enough in the competition, or wins a qualifying award, it will move on to nationals in St. Louis, Mo., Dolgin said.


Unexpected outcomes

While they are not sure of their chance at regionals, Dolgin said, team members walked out of last weekend’s district competition with a surprise.

Competing against 40 teams, Project 691 won the Imagery Award, which celebrates attractiveness in engineering and outstanding visual aesthetics from machine to team appearance, he said.

Dubbed “Project Blackwing,” Project 691’s robot and apparel reflected a cohesive, secret-agent theme.

While most groups show up in team shirts with their controls fashioned on plywood, Project Blackwing’s secret service team members donned suits and hats, carried briefcases with the controllers and escorted the robot from car door to first position on the field, Dolgin said.

“It is great to see them learn how to distribute work across the whole team,” Petras said. “They have to learn to work together or they will never finish on time.”

More than awards, Dolgin has gained experiences and opportunities not available to some high school students.
After he made connections with Bayless Engineering in Valencia, the manufacturer offered him a summer job assembling machine shells, he said.

“These are our future leaders in science and technology,” Petras said. “They are the ones that will change the world.”

Dolgin, with his light-colored curls and apparent young professionalism, thought long and hard about what he’s enjoyed most out of the past five years in robotics.

“The best part is not only getting to hang out and compete with my friends, but I’ve made so many new friends in Project 691 that I never would have met,” he said. “I’ve met friends across the world in FIRST — it’s not something that just happens here.”


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