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Machine masters

Bots battle in tournament

Students put design skills to the test

March 20, 2017 Digital Media Exclusive

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Butler High School student Robert Hays, right, works on his team's robot during the BotsIQ Tournament at Butler County Community College on March 9. The event featured robots fighting each other using blades, hammers and rams.

Robot cage fighting has returned to Butler County.

BotsIQ held its annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Tournament recently in the Science Technology and Cultural Center at Butler County Community College.

High school students from around the region packed the halls as they prepared their machines for combat.

Fifteen-pound robots with spinning blades, hammers and rams, called “wedges,” lined up for safety inspection before being let loose in the ring.

Robots often take just a few seconds to destroy or disable each other, and each team is encouraged to be creative with their machines' offensive capabilities.

“We were playing around with an experimental weapon design this year,” said Drew Meier, a senior at Butler High School. “It only strikes once per revolution. Ours has a counter weight on one side and a blade on the other.”

This is meant to give more power to each swing, and the Butler team says it did just that.

“I think it went really well,” said Noah Proctor, a Butler high sophomore. “Surprisingly, it only took a small amount of time to do major damage.”

Each round is three minutes of one-on-one gladiatorial battle, though rounds rarely go the length.

Rounds can go anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, said Michael Amrhein, a longtime volunteer and competition judge. If a robot is disabled, the round is over.

“This event is often the first time these teams have tested their robot,” he said. “They're usually still working out the kinks.”

While the schedule at the tournament has to remain flexible, the rules are strict.

Everything, especially weapons, have to be intended to stay attached to the robot, said Stephanie Peters, a math teacher at Butler High School and one of the group's advisers.

“That doesn't mean everything does,” she said. “Things will fly off all the time.”

Additionally, robots cannot weigh more than 15 pounds.

To enter the competition, students must document every aspect of the construction, Peters said. Materials, processes, circuits, everything that goes into the robot must go into the documentation so that, if given to a manufacturer, the robot could be made to exact specifications.

This aids the ultimate goal of the tournament: educating and engaging students in hands-on engineering and manufacturing.

“I only want the kids to do two things: that is learn and have fun at it,” said Dale Mills, a science teacher at Butler Intermediate High School. “How we finish is not as important as whether they're learning and they enjoy it.”

To participate in the project, students work after class, using their free time to meet, research, plan and construct the robot.

“We learn so much every year,” said Meier. “After finals at Cal U we just sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pen and write everything that went well, everything that went wrong and sometimes we start designing the next robot.”

As robots continue to fill jobs in manufacturing, companies need more employees who can work with them.

Phyllis Miller, human resources manager at Hamill Manufacturing Company and BotsIQ chairman, said events like these can often result in jobs right out of high school.

“We have a great apprenticeship program,” she said. “Students can get jobs right out of high school. Good, high paying jobs.”

Students can also get the opportunity to tour factories and see how manufacturing is changing.

“Manufacturing is not what it used to be,” Miller said. “It's clean.”

Despite the need for workers, Miller said Hamill isn't looking for people new to robots and machinery.

“I've had people with degrees in business and sociology apply for jobs, and I can't hire them,” she said.

Some students have gotten jobs right out of high school through these tournaments, she said. It's an opportunity to show employers practical skills.

There is another preliminary event at Westmoreland County Community College, though teams rarely compete at two preliminaries.

The finals will be held at California (Pa.) University in April.

Participating teams in the region include Seneca Valley, Moniteau and Butler Intermediate high schools.

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