Robotics competitions might be the next frontier of the athletic world.

Just ask the Bonny Eagle High School Robotics Team, which placed among the finalists in its division in a championship competition last weekend. The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championship Robotics Competition was held in St. Louis, Mo.

To earn points for their team, the robots run, jump, play defense, overcome obstacles and shoot foam balls into elevated goals. The robot can be controlled remotely by a driver, or driven autonomously by a built-in computer program. Intentionally causing physical harm to another robot is prohibited, but sometimes, in the frenzy, “there are collisions,” said team mentor John DiRenzo, an engineer at The Baker Co. in Sanford.

The athletic bent of the competition is designed to appeal to teenagers, said George Mitchell, a Bonny Eagle High School senior and drive-team leader, “by making STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) exciting, like it should be.”

But robotics isn’t all fun and games. It took a lot of work for the 30-member robotics team to make it to the final championship weekend, where they were ranked sixth out of the 3,120 teams worldwide for their average number of points earned in a match.

The team began construction in January, and in accordance with competition rules, were allowed 6½ weeks to design and build the robot. Mitchell and fellow drive-team member Jacob Moss, also a senior, estimate they each spent roughly 40 hours per week during the month and a half to get the robot up and running, making robotics the equivalent of a full-time job.

Although students specialize in different roles – for example, four students make up the drive team, and are responsible for controlling and maintaining the robot during competition – designing and building the robot is a collaborative effort, according to Moss.

The team takes all of the best ideas and melds them together, Moss said, so “it’s not like I could point to one feature and say I did that myself.”

Starting in mid-March, the team took their robot to three levels of competition before reaching the world championship.

All the while, Moss said, he was impressed by the congenial atmosphere, sense of community and camaraderie even among opposing teams.

The robotics team experienced first-hand the sportsmanship of robotics when their robot popped a tire during the first round of their division’s quarter finals. One of their competitors allowed them to pause, and gave them spare parts so they could continue in the competition.

Their robot then advanced to the semi-finals, and eventually went on to the final level of their division. In the finals, the team was thwarted by another mechanical failure when they lost radio communication from the computer to the robot, and were unable to control the robot for the last 40 seconds of the game.

Given the sharing of equipment and swapping of ideas at the competition, the drive team agreed the competition is more about learning than winning.

Moss said many of his fellow team members, himself included, “developed a career path and found motivation in school through robotics.”

Moss, Mitchell, and fellow drive-team member and Evan Gillingham said they intend to pursue STEM education and careers after graduating in June.

Although the team is happy with their success, Amber Lindberg, a sophomore and the only returning member of the drive team, said next year she “definitely wants to put in more time and get others to work. I hope the people who were here this year see our success and are driven to want to succeed next year.”

The team will lose half its members to graduation, she said, so they will be looking especially to recruit incoming freshman.

In the meantime, the team has applied to the Indiana Robotics Invitational, a competitive off-season event, held in July. Team members will also attend some non-competitive events locally during the summer.

DiRenzo, who has mentored the team for 19 of its 20 years, said the team has “never had such success as this. We’ve done well before, but this is our greatest success in 20 years.”

The award-winning Bonny Eagle Robotics Team gathered Tuesday at Bonny Eagle High following the world championship competition. From row, from left, the four-person drive team – Evan Gillingham, Amber Lindberg, George Mitchell and Jacob Moss – control the robot during competition. 

At the World Championship Robotics competition, Bonny Eagle High School senior Jacob Moss places the robot before the start of the game.