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Boston’s NUTRONs are taking aim at a high school robot championship

Brainy teens behind a ball-hurling bot face off in their home city this weekend before heading to worlds

The way to earn points in this year’s FIRST Robotics competition is tofling a foam dodge ball through a hole.

This is done after piloting a robot over obstacles, like a rumbly strip of bumps or a doorway that has to be opened and scurried through. The action plays out on a medieval-themed course.

The goals up high are worth five points. The ones down low are worth three.

And the NUTRONs, a team drawing from five Boston-area high schools with a fighting chance at the 2016 championship, aims high.

“A lot of teams don’t have success with their robots like we do,” said Brandon Holley, the NUTRONs’ very proud head coach.

After earning the top prize at a competition in Arizona, the NUTRONs’ brainy high school robot engineers are competing in their home city this weekend, squaring off with other teams April 1-3at the Agganis Arena. Next month, they head to the big annual championship in St. Louis.

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At their headquarters on Tuesday night, a many-roomed basement engineering lab at Northeastern University, the clock was ticking. Teams are given just six hours total between matches to tinker with their robot. The NUTRONs pulled their bot, which they call “Escape Velocity,” out of a giant plastic bag and got to work.

Part of the focus was patching up the damage a rival robot caused in the ring at the latest competition, a district face-off last weekend in Rhode Island. The opponent’s operators got a bit too aggressive and drove right on top of their robot, slamming into the NUTRONs’ camera by accident.

Elsewhere on the bot, a dozen hands worked quickly to tighten bolts and snap replacement do-dads into place.

Earlier this year, the team had just six weeks to put design, build, test and tweak their robot – first arranging its pieces with 3D computer software, then manufacturing its metal frame and connecting all of its wires and pistons.

The NUTRONs tried eight versions of a catapult system before settling on their competition-winning design, team members said: the robot lurches up at a 60 degree angle, then metal jaws flick forward and whip the foam ballinto the air.

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This late in the process, they’re still making changes, like adding a shield for that camera, and moving it up higher out of enemy reach.

At the team’s home base, everyone gets a chance to weigh in. If one person designs a piece that functions better than the one it’s replacing, on it goes.

“We have plenty of wood in the stock room, so what we say is, ‘Go make a prototype and prove that it works,’” said Badr Bouhou, an 18-year-old senior at Revere High. “If it’s working better, then there’s no way we can argue against that.”

Among their most complex and valuable tools is “Escape Velocity’s” handmade optical system.

An LED light ring sends out green light, which bounces off the reflective tape around the targets. Then a camera feeds information to the robot about where to aim.

“Whenever we’re ready to shoot, all we have to do is press one button,” said 17-year-old Camilo Gonzalez, also an RHS senior. “You just go to the general area and then the camera and all of our codes take care of it.”

Unless something breaks or another robot slams into theirs, they don’t miss.

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“It’s 100 percent,” Bouhou said.

Bouhou and Gonzalez, who are the team’s captains, have been involved with the robotics program for four years, and they also mentor robot-building middle and elementary school students. Both are pursuing careers in engineering.

Even though they’ve been successful, it’s passion that drives the NUTRONs , said Holley, an Boston engineer and Northeastern alum who was aFIRST competitor in high school.

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“They’re doing it for the right reasons, which makes it a lot more special,” Halley said. “The work they’re doing off the field, they’re doing because they genuinely want to.”

That’s how Peter Ha, a 16-year-old sophomore from Brookline High, described it, too.

“This has been eating up the vast majority of my free time, whereas otherwise I’d be at home playing video games or whatever,” Ha said, standing among the wooden targets the team uses for practice. “Now I’m spending a lot of my time here actually building something. It’s something tangible we have actually made. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Learn more about the donor-supported NUTRONson their Facebook page, or contact them at nutrons@gmail.com.

 

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