Nolan’s Robo Vikes advance to world championship
FORT WORTH — Competing in the “varsity sport for the mind,” a group of Nolan Catholic High School students recently advanced to the robotics equivalent of the Olympics.
Nolan’s Robo Vikes will compete at the World Robotics Championship in Houston this month after they won multiple championships and awards at district, regional, and state competitions.
Robo Vikes, which began in 2011 with just a few students, now has 32 students and 11 mentors, some of them engineering professionals from Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter. They compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competitions as Team 4206.
They won district championships this season in Amarillo and at a meet Nolan hosted in Fort Worth and placed third at a Florida contest.
Recently, the Robo Vikes attended the FIRST In Texas District Championships, accompanied by Bishop Michael Olson, and earned the title of District Championship Finalist and won the Gracious Professionalism award for outstanding demonstration of FIRST Core Values and working together both on and off the playing field.
For the FIRST Robotics Competitions, teams have limited time and resources to come up with robots to accomplish specified tasks in contests against other robots. Each January, students learn the rules of the game that season’s robots will play.
“The big thing for me is you have to change what you’re doing every year,” said Andrew Paladin, a senior, fourth-year team member, and lead programmer and driver. “That’s what makes it different from other sports. Some years the robot is shooting balls, other times it’s stacking crates or moving boxes.”
Applying all aspects of engineering
The 2022 season is sponsored by Boeing and features robots that pick up oversized tennis balls and shoot them into an 8-foot goal. Before time expires, they attempt to climb a series of three “monkey bars,” each one two feet higher than the previous bar. The robots have 2 minutes and 30 seconds for each round, with the first 15 seconds set aside for programming autonomous actions. Some actions work autonomously while other tasks are initiated by a team member via a controller.
Robots are built with items from a set list of materials, but designs can vary greatly.
Graham Dungan, Nolan junior and a three-year Robo Vikes member, said that one of the things he’s most looking forward to at the World Championship is walking through the pits and getting to “see all the different solutions” to the same tasks.
The robotics team is coached by engineering teacher Brad Billeaudeau. “Everything you learn in the engineering classroom is here: programming, manufacturing, the design process, CAD (computer aided design),” Billeaudeau said. “It’s the practical application of that knowledge.”
Dungan said that team members get to do all kinds of tasks beyond creating the robot when they go to a contest. “We have people doing data analytics, scouting matches, strategists, assemblers, drivers, a presenter, so many different roles.”
‘The hardest fun you’ll ever have’
Some 400 teams from 37 countries will compete in the World Championship. For each match, a team will be randomly paired with another team and go up against two other teams. You never know who you’ll be teamed with, which fosters a spirit of “coopertition,” a mix of cooperation and competition. Paladin said, “That randomness means you help each other and help others whenever you’re available.”
Both Dungan and Paladin are looking forward to meeting people from other teams and other countries, like England, Canada, Israel, and Turkey.
Billeaudeau said the FIRST Robotics Contest is billed “as the hardest fun you’ll ever have” and is often “a roller coaster of emotion.” Teams can win or lose by a fraction of a second or a fraction of an inch.
Not all mentors are engineers. Some are Nolan parents, past and present. Julia Ermish’s son graduated from Nolan in 2021, but she stayed involved to support Catholic education and assist the team to “make sure it’s there for them to continue.”
In addition to all their other duties, students must find sponsors for the team and raise funding. This year’s sponsors include Variosystems, Regan Scientific, Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter, Southwest Airlines, FWN&A, Mouser Electronics, Uptown Pup, and the Crane Family Foundation. Individuals also can contribute to funding Robo Vikes. For more information, email [email protected].
Next year, Paladin will take the skills he’s learned and study computer science and engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dungan said he’s excited for the upcoming world contest, to continue in Robo Vikes next year, and plans to study engineering in college. He said, “I’m part of a great network of engineers who want to change the world.”