AUGUSTA — While some of their classmates were enjoying the February break relaxing on the ski slopes or at the beach, members of the Hall-Dale High School robotics team were hard at work in the lower level of the Ballard Center putting the finishing touches on their robot for this season’s competition.

“We probably did several thousand man hours since January,” said William Fahy, a senior and one of the team’s captains. The first competition will be held in Worcester, Massachusetts, early next month before the team participates in the FIRST New England District Pine Tree Regional on March 30 and April 1 in Lewiston.

Delta Prime Robotics spent most of Tuesday, known in the high school robotics world as Stop Build Day, working on the robot until midnight. The 15-member team worked on programming, electrical design and final building of the robot in their space at the Ballard Center – the former MaineGeneral Medical Center building on East Chestnut Street – which the team uses at no cost. The space features several large rooms, including a full body shop and a 3-D printer.

This year’s game, called “Steamworks,” requires teams to build a robot using specific guidelines provided by the sport’s governing body. During the first 30 seconds of each match, the robot must perform certain tasks autonomously.

Robotics team members from Hall-Dale High School test their robot’s maneuverability Tuesday at the Ballard Center in Augusta. The students are participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Kennebec Journal/Elise Klysa

Lead mentor Karen Giles said the game’s object is to gather gears that are loaded onto the robot by a human player. The robot then must take the gears and place them onto spots on an airship in the center of the playing field. Giles said there is also fuel – giant neon yellow whiffle balls – that can be loaded into the robot and shot or dumped into a steam boiler.

“The robot has to have speed and precision and aiming capabilities,” Giles said. “You get extra ranking points for the qualifying round based on how many you get in the boiler.”

In the last 30 seconds of the match, the robot must drive itself to a hanging rope, pull itself up to about 5 feet off the ground, contact a touch pad and hang in place until a buzzer sounds. The team is using a Kevlar rope that can hold hundreds of pounds instead of the rope provided by the tournament organizers.

Fahy, one of the team’s lead programmers, said getting the robot, which doesn’t have a name yet, to do several complicated tasks and movements at the same time is a challenge.

“The robot can’t learn anything just by putting a camera there and seeing stuff, because it has to process the image,” Fahy said. “We have to put it through a bunch of different layers of processing.”

Hall-Dale High School students, all members of Delta Prime Robotics, huddle around their robotic entry Tuesday at the Ballard Center in Augusta with mentor Karen Giles, second from right, in order to finish their work before the competition deadline. Students are, from left, Garmin Dion, Eli Pahn, Michael Crochere, Ean Smith, Bryce Bradgon, Alicia Warm and, at far right, team business and coding captain William Fahy. Kennebec Journal/Elise Klysa

Senior Anna Schaab, who designed the team’s logo and handles its social media outreach, said the robot uses the camera and an encoder that measures how far the wheels have moved and other real-time data.

“We can see how far we’ve gone and where we’re aiming,” Schaab said. “These are difficult things we’re trying to do.”

Giles’ son graduated last year after serving as one of the team leaders during the competition season, but she said she decided to stick around as lead mentor because she loves working with the students and seeing how their minds work. Giles, an artist and former therapeutic horse riding instructor, has made robotics her career as director of the Robotics Institute of Maine, whose mission is to inspire youth to gain a new perspective on science and technology by providing opportunities and resources for robotics programs.

“They are learning so much more than robots,” Giles said. “They learn how to work with other people. They make friends from all over New England and they learn the soft skills employers would look for.”

Giles said she works with a lot of employers who are looking not only for the technological skills these students possess, but also for people who work well with others, who can work as a team and who can jump in and help when something needs to get done.

Gracious professionalism is something stressed by New Hampshire-based FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Delta Prime won two gracious professionalism awards last season, and Fahy said helping other teams and helping each other is almost as important as the competition.

“Everyone is there to compete and show that their robot is going to win, but it’s competition with cooperation,” Fahy said. “At any given event, you’ll find teams helping each other.”

Jason Pafundi can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

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