As a trumpeting call announced the start of the match, three robots rolled out from each side of the field. One side included 5708 Zebrotics, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team representing Community High School. Facing Zebrotics, who had just redesigned their robot, was the 1076 PiHi Samurai of Pioneer High School, who were driving the same robot that took them to finals in a competition four weeks prior.
When the frenzied two-and-a-half minute match — the fifth of eighty — drew to a close, the two teams had tied 62 to 62.
“It really shows the essence of what it means to be coming from a place where we don’t think it’s going to be performing at its peak, but it does,” said Giuliano Fonte-Basso, Zebrotics’ engineering lead.
The Zebrotics team finished 23rd out of 40 teams at the competition held at Churchill High School in Livonia, Mich., on April 5 and 6. In this year’s space-themed competition, robots earned points by carrying discs (“hatches”) and balls (“cargo”) to the rockets located at the side of the field and a single cargo ship at the center, before returning to their starting point.
After Zebrotics’ competition at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich., the month before, the team recognized that they were trying to do too much with their robot, and began specializing by simplifying their accident-prone lift mechanism and focusing on inserting the game pieces into the cargo ship.
“To have a good robot, you’re not going to be good at everything — you’re going to have a niche and from that you’re going to have ties with other groups,” Fonte-Basso said. “We’re in a team with three competent teams that have done the exact same thing — hours upon hours upon hours of engineering and design — and we have to use them as a building block.”
With each round, the robot worked the circuit of picking up the game piece, driving into position to insert the pieces, and returning for another piece.
When the team found the robot unable to move forward, driver Jack Onderdonk shifted to driving backwards and playing defensively, by pushing into the other robots to prevent them from inserting the game pieces. Zebrotics pulled away with a victory, 52 to 51.
Out of their qualification matches, five were victories, six were losses, and one was a tie. While Zebrotics was not selected for the playoffs, they were first in line as a backup robot in case any of the other robots broke down during the matches.
In the quarterfinals, Zebrotics rushed onto the field, ready to go. Unfortunately for the team, one of their other robots stalled out. Nonetheless, Zebrotics held up a strong defense, slowing down the efforts of the other side. After a review by the judges, the score proved to be a loss, 33 to 77.
In the finals, Zebrotics cheered on Pioneer as they emerged as one of the three winners in the finals.
“I was genuinely so proud of Pioneer,” Fonte Basso said. “Ned [Capuano] and I — we were always with them. It doesn’t matter that they’re our ‘rivals’. Your rival is still your friend.”
One by one, the awards were announced, and the teams walked to the playing field as they greeted the judges and collected their trophy. Having won the Judges’ Award in their previous competition, many on the team hoped they would gain yet another.
“This team is flush with imagination,” the announcer said. “Their effective use of household objects and tools is equal parts creative and unique. Their colorful ideas can be seen as they gallop into space. Congratulations, team 5708, Zebrotics.”
The team received the Creativity Award for using a scrubbing brush as their hatch grabber. While other teams spent hours designing their hatch grabber, 5708 Zebrotics simply used an off-the-shelf brush as an inexpensive, yet surprisingly effective tool for carrying the hatch around the field.
While the team did not advance to the state competition, this season has placed the team in a strong position the next season, even as the senior leadership graduates.
“We had students who had never really done a major engineering project who contributed a lot to the design success that we had,” said Christia West, the lead mentor. “The fact that we got awards for both our design and our engineering tells me we’re really going down the right path.”