The warehouse sits far back off Main Street in Buxton’s Bar Mills, so out of the way that the high school kids who congregate there – sometimes into the wee hours of the morning – have the place pretty much to themselves.

Which, in this case, is a good thing.

“George and I each put in about 240 hours in the six and a half weeks,” said Jake Moss, a senior at Bonny Eagle High School, sitting next to fellow senior George Mitchell inside the cavernous building last week. “But that was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Welcome to the Bonny Eagle Robotics Team, or BERT Robotics. Also known as our future.

Back in January, just like 3,148 other teams around the world, this eclectic group of 30 kids from all over School Administrative District 6 received a video and a voluminous package of instructions from the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

This year’s competition, dubbed “Stronghold,” would go like this: “Two Alliances of three robots each are on a Quest to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower. Robots score points by breaching opponents’ defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower. During the final 20 seconds of the Quest, robots may surround and scale the opposing tower to capture it.”

All-righty then.

Each team had 45 days – not a minute more, not a minute less – to design, build and test its robot.

From scratch.

If it worked, from scaling the defensive “outer works” to shooting “boulders” through the towers’ windows to actually scaling the structures with powerful winches and pulleys, engineering glory awaited.

If it failed, well, there’s always next year.

Founded way back in 1996, BERT Robotics isn’t just an obscure club for science-minded geeks. It’s a kid magnet.

Bonny Eagle High School BERT Robotics Team members Amber Lindberg, left, Jacob Moss and George Mitchell guide their robot "Stein" during the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis.

Bonny Eagle High School BERT Robotics Team members Amber Lindberg, left, Jacob Moss and George Mitchell guide their robot “Stein” during the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis. Courtesy of BERT Robotics

Moss, a team captain who lives in Limington, still remembers his eureka moment: He was a fifth-grader at Hollis Elementary School when the team paid a visit.

“I was like this tall,” Moss recalled, holding his hand 4 feet off the ground. “And there was a robot that was like twice my size, three times my weight and could lift like 200 pounds. And I’m like that’s the coolest thing you could have seen as a kid. Five-foot-long mechanical arms. It was an insanely over-engineered robot, but absolutely fantastic.”

He immediately joined the elementary school’s Lego robotics team. But alas, there was no team in middle school.

“But I waited,” Moss said. “And then freshman year came around and I was like, boom, on the robotics team.”

The program, as the FIRST slogan goes, is about “more than robots.”

It’s about learning to fundraise – BERT Robotics currently boasts 42 sponsors, from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin (for whom BERT Robotics alumnus Clayton Coburn, now a team mentor, works as an engineer) to Low’s Pizza up the street from the warehouse.

It’s about honing marketing skills – the team has a committee dedicated to its website (http://www.bert133.org/#), Facebook page (www.facebook.com/BERT133) and other communications throughout Maine’s fourth largest school district.

It’s even about politicking. When the team approached SAD 6 about financial help – the annual construction, registration and travel costs run well into five figures – the district’s board of directors, bless them, allocated $11,000 this year to help BERT Robotics reach once again for glory.

Which they did.

They spent the fall meeting every Wednesday evening inside the heated warehouse, donated at no cost by Rob Connary, owner of the information technology firm ITS Inc.

Not yet knowing what they’d be asked to build or what it would be required to do, they focused instead on teaching the younger kids the basics of metal working, electronics, computer programming …

Guy stuff? Not in these parts.

“There’s no reason it should be male-oriented,” said Mitchell. “No reason at all.”

Thus we have Amber Lindberg, a sophomore from Standish whose family was so involved with the team (her brother was a captain) when she was in middle school that she had no choice but to tag along “if I ever wanted to see them.”

Upon finally joining herself, Lindberg brought her friends along. Of the eight sophomores currently on the team, five are female.

Equally off-target would be the notion that when it comes to BERT Robotics, only budding young Einsteins need apply.

“We’ve had athletes on the team, we’ve had valedictorians,” said Lindberg. “It’s such a mix.”

“We try to appeal to everyone, agreed Moss. “This year we’ve had a bunch of jazz musicians, field hockey players.”

Perhaps that kind of diversity made all the difference: When this year’s instructions arrived, a debate immediately broke out over what the priority should be – a robot proficient at scoring lots of low-value shots through the ground-level targets, or one that could hit the 7-foot-high openings at the top of the towers and thus rack up more points more quickly.

The shoot-for-the-sky group prevailed.

The first prototype robot was named “Frank.” The second, for actual competition, was christened “Stein.”

Stein, from the start, shot like a stud.

Scooping the inflated, soccer-ball-size “boulders” from the field and auguring them into its pneumatic catapult, the robot used a computer-guided camera to zero in on the target and, presto, boulder after boulder sailed cleanly through the tower.

Honestly, to watch 110-pound Stein in action (BERT 133 in red in a video at https://youtu.be/60nt4VVQwZI) is to witness the robotics equivalent of an NBA three-point shooting contest.

Beginning in early April, with Stein’s CIM motors, boat winch, light sensor, six wheels, radio transmitter and receiver, 550 paracord and Lord knows what else fine-tuned to the hilt, the BERT Robotics team headed out onto the competition circuit.

They finished first in the state of Maine and fourth in New England, more than enough to qualify for the 2016 FIRST World Championship in St. Louis.

Almost the entire team – 27 kids in all – made the trip.

“I always felt bad (in the past) about the kids who got left behind,” explained John DiRenzo, an electrical engineer at The Baker Co. in Sanford who has mentored the team for 19 years. “Wherever we go now, we all go. It’s open to everyone.”

The first challenge in St. Louis was to find two other teams with which BERT Robotics would form its “alliance.” That task fell to senior Jack Cardell of Buxton, who spent hours scouting other robots and interviewing their creators to find just the right human/technical fit for what would amount to a critical, time-sensitive merger.

Much as the robots may all look alike, it turns out they’re not.

“There are a lot of differences,” said Cardell. “And the human element is definitely a big one.”

BERT Robotics emerged from the qualifying rounds seeded first in its division – the first time in its 20-year history the team had ever been seeded first in anything.

From there, the team’s alliance made it to the division finals – one step away from the eight-alliance playoffs that would determine the world champions.

Then, for 40 earth-shattering seconds, Stein’s radio went dead.

“It just kind of sat there for 40 seconds,” said Mitchell. “Didn’t manage to score many points.”

Long pause.

“And we were bested by Team 330 and their alliance … and they moved on to the Einstein Field (the finals) … and now they are the world champions.”

Ouch.

Added Moss, “Before our radio died, we were winning by a 40-point margin. A 40-point margin. And then we lost.”

Moments after the pivotal match ended, the radio somehow blinked back to life on its own. The problem?

“We’ll never know,” said Lindberg.

But hey, let’s hit the reset button here.

By the time the four-day world championship ended, the BERT Robotics team stood at sixth in the world for Offensive Point Ranking – reflecting Stein’s average offensive output over the course of the competition. Overall, the team ranked ninth in the world.

“We argued it before,” said Moss. “But now that the numbers are out, we can definitely say we have one of the best shooters in the world.”

They can’t quite believe it’s over.

Upon graduating next month, Moss will be off to California Polytechnic State University. Mitchell will leave home in Buxton for Clarkson University in New York to study software engineering, while Cardell will attend Southern Maine Community College and dig into computer science.

Lindberg, meanwhile, will welcome a new batch of freshmen.

“One thing I keep telling everyone is no matter how much you give to this team, it’s always going to give back more,” said Moss. “You put in 240 hours of your free time and a lot of your sleep, but you get back meeting kids from around the world and you get back great friends, great experiences, lots of laughs and hands down the best experience you could take away from high school.”

Not bad for a bunch of kids hanging out in a warehouse.

 


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