Boulder High robotics team heads to world competition

·4 min read

Jul. 31—Competing in person was important enough to Boulder High's robotics club that the students switched from their regular competition to a new one that requires them to design, build and program a robot that works underwater.

Despite being newcomers to underwater robotics, they scored well enough at a regional competition in May hosted by the St. Vrain Valley School District's Innovation Center to move on to the world finals.

"It's been great to have something to work toward," said team member Noah Mollerstuen, who graduated from Boulder High in May and will "drive" the robot. "I love every minute of it."

The team is planning to ship the robot — the airline couldn't promise it would arrive safely — to Tennessee this week. The MATE ROV Competition's 2021 World Championship starts Aug. 5 at Eastern Tennessee State University. This year's theme focuses on finding solutions to global problems, such as plastic pollution in oceans and the impact of climate change on coral reefs.

Along with Mollerstuen, the eight-person Boulder High team is comprised of Gary Bailey, Mikael Steinman, Carter Harllee, Amitan Bar-Evan, Bryce Irving, Nathan Hoggard and Dylan Irving. Boulder High teacher Dan Zahner is the team's mentor, while student Ian Crittenden, who graduated in May, also provided logistical help.

The team is supported financially by the Jim and Dede Barttlet Foundation, as well as getting support from the Solid State Depot, Boulder Elks and Oceans First.

With Boulder High's tech lab inaccessible for much of the school year, the team turned to Boulder's Solid State Depot's makerspace to make parts and build the robot. They also met weekly online during the design phase, then bolted the first prototype together in a garage.

Finding pools where they could test the robot was another challenge. They ended up using pools at the South Boulder and East Boulder recreation centers, the Elks Club and Ocean's First.

Other challenges included keeping out leaks so all the electronics stay dry. This underwater competition, they said, also requires a robot that's good at performing multiple tasks — unlike the competitions they entered previously that required a robot that was really good at only a couple of tasks.

What's stayed familiar is the constant cycle of testing, repairing and revising. Just this week, at what was to be a final practice in a friend's pool, a part failed and the electronics got wet briefly. That left them scrambling to dry and retest the electronics, as well as make a replacement part for the one that broke.

"It's always something," Mollerstuen said.

They also added a measuring tape and friction drive this week that they're hoping will allow the robot to retrieve a canister from inside a long length of pipe. Other tasks require the robot to pick up "coral" and perform maintenance on a model of a trash skimming "sea bin."

In the competition, they will have 15 minutes to direct the robot to complete the tasks, earning points for each one completed successfully. Teams also must prepare technical documentation for their vehicles, deliver an engineering presentation to a panel of judges and create a marketing display.

"There's a lot to learn," said Bar-Evan, an incoming Boulder High junior. "It was a challenge to figure it out."

Mollerstuen and Bailey, another graduated senior, both plan to major in related fields. Mollerstuen plans to major in computer science at Case Western Reserve University, while Bailey is headed to Carnegie Mellon University to major in electrical and computer engineering.

"What I did in the robotics club is exactly what I want to be doing in college," said Bailey, who was the club's electronics expert.

Along with spending "hundreds" of hours on the robot, the graduating seniors said, they also worked to improve the culture of the club to make sure it was welcoming to newcomers and would be sustainable in future years.

"It's a great way for all of us, with different skills and interests, to work on a project together," Mollerstuen said.

For next year, the club will need to decide whether to go back to the original FIRST Robotics competitions that the club has done since 2003 or stick with the underwater competition — or, as suggested by Zahner, they could tackle both.

Bar-Evan said she really enjoyed the underwater challenge. Plus, she said, the team already has a good capsule design to use in future years.

Bailey added the underwater competition was more open ended and so more fun.

"The biggest thing about our team is we like to have fun," he said.

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