WHEA team lands spot in world robotics championship

  • Members of West Hawaii Explorations Academy's Sharkbots team pose at the South Pacific Regional tournament in Sydney Olympic Park in Australia. (Photo courtesy West Hawaii Explorations Academy)

KAILUA-KONA — For some students at West Hawaii Explorations Academy just returning from back-to-back robotics tournaments in Australia, being a part of the Sharkbots team is more than getting to build, program and operate a robot.

“Whenever I came here, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t even know engineering was a career that I could take as a girl and as a person that wasn’t able to do a lot of things,” said student Lauren Nichols, 16, during an interview with her teammates at the North Kona campus. “Going here and actually having a team that’s there to support me and there to teach me a lot more about it, it opened up everything.”

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The Sharkbots’ efforts at the Southern Cross Regional and subsequent South Pacific Regional, both held in Sydney Olympic Park, landed the team a wild card spot at the world championship later this month in Houston, Texas.

The annual competition challenges students to develop their robots in just six weeks, and robots then have to complete a range of tasks within a “game” that changes year-to-year.

This year’s game, “Destination: Deep Space” sends students reaching for the stars to Planet Primus, a place where “unpredictable terrain and weather patterns make remote robot operation essential to their mission on the planet,” according to this year’s season manual.

Teams, which are grouped into two opposing alliances, have just 2.5 minutes to maximize their score and earn points by deploying their robots from their habitat, securing hatch panels onto their rockets and cargo ships as well as load them up with cargo before making it back to the habitat before an impending “sandstorm.”

Operators’ sights are clouded during the first 15 seconds of the match by an initial sandstorm, preventing them from seeing the arena, meaning the robots have to be able to maneuver autonomously or by operators using a video system.

At the start of January, FIRST counted more than 94,750 youth team members on 3,790 teams from 33 countries, according to a fact sheet from the organization.

A key feature of the contest — and one WHEA robotics teacher Liana White said is her favorite part — is FIRST’s emphasis on what it calls “coopertition,” which the organization says is the idea “that teams can and should help and cooperate with one another even as they compete.”

Because of the use of alliances in the contest, teams are partnered with other teams for every match, and then they all must work together against the opposing alliance to maximize their score.

“It’s all about collaboration and communication,” White said. “And the students have to just approach people they’ve never met before in their life really quickly, transfer a lot of information and, together with these people they’ve never met before, come up with a strategy for this next match before it happens.”

The focus on “coopertition” is a standard that’s upheld both within the match and in the regular interactions between teams.

“Being at the competition and working with other teams was really great,” said Africa Hayes, 15, “because even if they weren’t going to be on your alliance at some point or you were going to be against them, everybody still helped each other.”

The contest also tested the team’s ability to overcome hurdles on the spot. After a defensive move by an opposing robot during a qualifying match at the Southern Cross Regional contest snapped some joints on their robot’s arm, the team adapted with a cardboard box and strategized with their allies to overcome the issue. In the end, the quick thinking helped the team continue advancing all the way through to the semifinals, where they were ultimately defeated.

“It taught us how not to become ‘tunnel visioned’ with our search and objectives and goals,” said Kenichi Furuto, 16, “to kind of wide spread our ideas and look towards different options and then implementing those and trying to see if it works, doing whatever we can in a short period of time.”

In the second tournament, the South Pacific Regional competition, WHEA’s Sharkbots — with their robot properly repaired and back in shape — battled all the way into the finals before their alliance lost in a “best out of three” finale.

Judges however awarded the Sharkbots a wildcard slot,qualifying them to compete in this month’s FIRST championship in Houston. That contest is scheduled for April 17-20.

Now the team is working to raise the funds to pay their way to the championship.

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White said they’re looking for donations as well as corporate sponsors, and those interested can email her at white@whea.net or call the school at 327-4751.

The team also has a GoFundMe page, found at https://bit.ly/2HKunce, to raise money to pay for airfare, tournament entry fees and accommodations.

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