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Wood County team to compete in FIRST Robotics Competition

Photo by Michael Erb Darkside Robotics co-captain Andy Chu uses a joystick and camera to guide the team’s robot along the floor and over a small ridge during a work session Thursday at the Caperton Center.

PARKERSBURG — Wood County’s Darkside Robotics Team will compete next month in the Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

The event takes place March 21-23 in Belle Vernon, Pa., and marks the first competition for the rookie team.

The 11-members of Darkside Robotics hail from all three Wood County public high schools and Parkersburg Catholic High School. The team meets several times a week at the Caperton Center, using engineering, programming and problem solving to build a robot to complete a series of timed tasks

Amy Stewart, an English teacher at the Wood County Technical Center and sponsor of the robotics team, said she’d coached a team while teaching in North Carolina and wanted to bring the program to Wood County.

Teams are given a series of tasks to complete within a given amount of time. Teams must build and program their robots to complete the specific tasks, which this year involves replacing a series of hatches at different elevations on a space ship.

Photo by Michael Erb Darkside Robotics member and Parkersburg Catholic High junior Andrew Shaw inspects the wiring on the team robot during a work session Thursday. The team will compete at the end of next month in the Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Belle Vernon, Pa.

The robot must be able to navigate to the ship, place the hatch, and extend to place additional hatches at other heights, with the highest hatch requiring the robot to extend 86 inches.

Stewart said competing isn’t cheap, costing thousands of dollars for the initial kits and entry fee, as well as travel and other expenses. The team has sought sponsorships and received support both small and large from area groups and businesses.

Some larger teams and school systems can have competition budgets in the six-figure range, while smaller teams may only have an extra few hundred dollars to put into their robot.

Andy Chu, a senior at Parkersburg High School and co-captain of Darkside Robotics, said the team started work in January and will have to have all of the physical aspects of the robot completed by Tuesday. The robot will then be tagged and locked up until the competition.

“Our big goal was getting the robot to move,” Chu said, steering the robot with a joystick and watching a camera feed on a laptop.

Photo by Michael Erb The robot built by Wood County team Darkside Robotics is controlled with a joystick and has a mounted camera. A pulley and slide system which will be installed this week will allow the robot to extend the arm to different heights to place hatches on mock space ships.

Andrew Shaw, a junior at Parkersburg Catholic High School, is helping with the programming. Shaw said that process will continue even after the physical robot is completed.

“We have a test bot and we will have access to the coding,” Shaw said. “Once the competition starts, we can load any new code into the robot and drive it out on the field.”

Shaw said part of the coding is to get the robot’s ability to reach wired to the push of a button. The team is using a series of curtain slides coupled with a wire and pulley system to get the robot to reach.

“The hardest part will be getting the steel cable to go through these pulleys,” said Matthew Tucker, a senior at Williamstown High School who is part of the engineering team working on the extension system. Modifying the slides also requires the team to machine some of the parts to allow clearance to bold the slides to the robot’s frame, as well as 3D printing some parts.

Tucker said he is nervous about mounting the slides because often the team finds new problems as it works, then must quickly determine how to overcome those obstacles.

Photo by Michael Erb Darkside Robotics members Matthew Tucker, left, and Zach Smith, right, work on the pulley and slide system which will allow the robot to extend its arm to different heights. The build on the robot must be completed by Tuesday, and the team will compete in Pennsylvania at the end of March.

“It’s not supposed to be difficult, but I’m sure it will be,” he said.

Zach Smith, a senior at Parkersburg South High School who is part of the team working on the extension system, said he is eager to reach the competition.

“I’m excited and a little nervous,” he said. “There are teams out there with 20-30 years of experience, and this is our first year.”

Stewart said since this is the team’s rookie year, its goals likely are a little different than other participating teams.

“If we can successfully score points by delivering the hatches, I think that would be a great mechanical achievement,” she said.

Stewart said while many the team members have an interest in engineering or programming, not all plan to pursue careers in those areas. The team also has a mix of seniors, juniors and even freshmen, and Stewart said she hopes this year’s seniors will inspire next year’s team as well.

“I think we have very strong student leadership, and I think that will set us up for good leadership next year,” she said. “I think we’re going to have more participation and involvement next year.”

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