When “Sir Lancebot,” the motorized basketball-playing robot built by the Milken Community High School’s robotics team, made its debut appearance at a regional competition in San Diego in early March, the results were not encouraging.
The team, officially called the Milken Knights, but more often identified as team No. 1856, spent the competition’s first day frantically working to make the robot run and the entire second morning stripping it down to comply with the 120-pound weight limit. When Lancebot finally made it onto the field on a Saturday afternoon, it instantly crashed into another machine, shattering its own electronic board. By the end of the third and final day, the repaired Milken robot had managed to score just one point.
“It was kind of a disappointment in San Diego, but nobody just gave up,” Jonathan Zur, an 11th-grader and the team’s co-captain, said. “We all knew we could do better.”
Two weeks la-ter, at a regional competition in Long Beach, they did just that. The team’s 22 middle- and high-school students earned Lancebot a second-place finish, the best result for the Milken team in its six years of entering the competition.
The mission of the program known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), in the words of founder Dean Kamen, is “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” The nonprofit organization has been holding international competitions for robots designed and built by high school students for the past 21 years, and at the Milken campus on a Friday afternoon in late April, its transformative power was evident.
Even while 400 other robotics teams from around the world were participating in the championship round of the FIRST Robotics Competition in St. Louis — which the Milken Knights came close to, but did not qualify for — a few members of the team were still only too happy to demonstrate their robot’s abilities.
“We’re running a special drive-train called West Coast Drive, which has six wheels, and the center wheel is lowered so the whole robot can tip back and forth,” Michael Bick, an eighth-grader, said. “You have a smaller wheel base, and so that allows you to turn more efficiently.”
Lancebot is powered by a battery about half the size of that of a typical car, and it includes mechanical and pneumatic as well as electronic parts. Like all of this year’s robotic entries, the Milken machine had to be able to maneuver around a field about half the size of a regulation basketball court on which it had to launch small, foam basketballs through one of four hoops mounted at the ends of the court and retrieve those balls either from the floor or from the human operators standing at the court’s edges.
In essence, the robot had to be able to play basketball. But if that task appears straightforward, designing and building a robot to do those things is anything but.
“There’s a lot of student enthusiasm, and they’re doing high-level stuff here,” Roger Kassebaum, director of the Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology at Milken and the robotics team’s mentor, said.
This year, for the first time, the Milken robot was designed entirely on a computer before fabrication even began. Bick did all the computer-aided design, or CAD, using a computer that was built by fellow teammate Josh Rusheen, who is in the 11th grade.
And the student work isn’t exclusively technological.
In competition, three robots, each from a different team, compete together, so their makers have to learn how to cooperate with people they’ve just met. And because fielding a robotics team can be expensive — on top of teacher salaries, Kassebaum estimated that the program costs about $20,000 annually to run — fundraising and developing partnerships with local businesses and corporate sponsors is also important.
“This year, we made a brochure and launched a more developed version of our Web site,” said Milana Bochkur Dratver, one of two female members of the team. Dratver, who started on the team last year, when she was in ninth grade, mostly focuses on public relations for the team.
On the field, she said, one major reason for Team 1836’s success was Lancebot’s performance in the first 15 seconds of each match, when all robots have to act independently, without any human guidance.
“Our programmer, Daniel Kessler — this was his very first year,” Dratver said. “He’s a ninth-grader, and he was able to program our autonomous round. It was very successful.”
Baskets scored during the autonomous period are worth significantly more than baskets scored during the remaining two minutes of each match, when drivers control the robot.
Milken’s robotics team has become a selling point for prospective students.
“I was considering either Milken or Harvard-Westlake,” said Austin Shalit, an eighth-grader and the team’s pneumatics captain. “I came here because I was very drawn by the robotics and science research. That’s what really made the decision for me.”
“The robotics team is absolutely why both of my kids came here,” said Hal Schloss, a former software developer who acts as the software and Web site mentor for the team. His son and daughter, now both in college studying computer science and aerospace engineering, both served as captains of the robotics team at Milken.
Schloss, who has, with his wife, provided Shabbat meals for the team during competitions for at least the last three years, said Shabbat observance can be difficult, particularly for Orthodox Jews like himself. As for his children, when they competed, Schloss said, “I didn’t look too hard. They did more than I would’ve liked.”
Kassebaum said he doesn’t know of any other Jewish day schools in the United States that field robotics teams in the FIRST competition. In Israel, where competitions are not held on Shabbat, it’s a different story.
“There’s a Tel Aviv regional,” Kassebaum said, and the Milken team competed there in 2010. “We ended up being finalists.”