Helias Catholic Robotics Team celebrates successful season

Anna Campbell/News Tribune
Helias Catholic sophomore Cody Mackey controls the RoboCrusaders' robot using an analog video game controller while teacher Melissa Rockers looks on.
Anna Campbell/News Tribune Helias Catholic sophomore Cody Mackey controls the RoboCrusaders' robot using an analog video game controller while teacher Melissa Rockers looks on.

It was a breakout year for the Helias Catholic High School Robotics Team, also known as the RoboCrusaders, which earned a spot in the state-level championship for the first time since the team's inception 11 years ago.

The team finished 14th out of 36 of the most competitive teams from seven leagues -- 178 teams -- in the Kansas and Missouri regions.

And the relatively young team, with just one upperclassman and seven sophomores and freshmen, hopes to take it all the way to the world competition in the future.

"I was very surprised whenever we made it to the final four and we moved forward," sophomore Cody Mackey said.

Teams receive a list of rules early in the fall so they can determine what supplies they may need. Leading up to the competitions, they learn what tasks their robots will need to complete to score points. For instance, this year, the robots needed to be able to launch a paper airplane, stack hexagonal blocks and hang from a bar under their own power.

Everyone on the team has a role and is constantly working while at competition and in preparation.

"Team cohesion: we have to know what each other is doing, we have to all have jobs, and we have to all constantly be doing a part," Mackey said.

They must work together to come up with a design that will be able to complete the tasks while also being maneuverable.

"The engineering and the coding have to kind of work together because if I have something that makes the robot strafe like this, pretty cool," Mackey said as he moved the robot sideways on its forward-facing wheels, "but if my weight is not evenly distributed, one of the wheels catches more than the others and kind of wants to drift off like this," he said as the robot slid away diagonally.

Team members must also program the robot to perform the correct actions when it receives certain commands.

Mackey primarily oversees the movement part of the programming.

"So I really have to know the limitations of the robot," he said.

The team may also want to plan ahead for things breaking. The team decided to build two arms-- one for hanging and one for stacking -- so that if one failed, the robot could still complete tasks.

And when things go wrong, they must troubleshoot or repair the robot.

"Practice is two hours of problem-solving," said teacher and team mentor Melissa Rockers.

The competition differs from other sports and activities in that it centers on collaboration, not only within the team, but with other teams. At each competition, the Helias team is randomly paired with a team from another school, called an "alliance," and their robots work together to complete objectives.

The Helias team worked with a team from Eldon, and Mackey said he built friendships with some of Eldon's players.

"Working with other teams, they have a limited amount of time," Rockers said. "So usually as soon as they know who they're going to be matched with, they go and they have a meeting. They're like, 'What can you do? What can you do?' And then they discuss it, and they make a game plan."

Teams can use a controller to operate the robot, but if it is programmed to perform the tasks autonomously, they will earn more points. The RoboCrusaders took it to another level of cooperation, with two people simultaneously controlling the movement of the robot during the competition.

"Because I do a lot of engineering on the robot and a lot of coding on the robot, I get asked questions a lot (by other teams)," Mackey said. "I like helping teams because first of all, you just get that experience in and you get to share your knowledge. And then second of all, if we're paired with them, they have a working robot."

Everyone brings a toolbox for repairs, and if a team needs something, anyone will share.

"We hand off pieces just left and right," Rockers said. "Everybody's trying to help each other. In other sports, you just don't see that."

Competitions are long days, lasting from morning to evening.

"Competition is intense because they're constantly programming, and working on the robot, and learning with other teams, and meeting and greeting other teams that they don't know to see what their robot's going to do," Rockers said.

Mackey said he wants to study mechanical and aeronautics engineering at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. Rockers said many students from the competition go on to STEM careers.

Teams can also earn awards for outreach activities, like the "Connect Award," which recognizes teams for connecting with their communities.

Helias also hosts two sixth-eighth grade Lego League teams made up of students from public, private and home schools. The RoboCrusaders also host a summer robotics camp from July 9-11 for children entering grades 6-8. Registration is available at www.heliascrusaderscamps.com.

  photo  Anna Campbell/News Tribune The RoboCrusaders' robot completes one of the competition tasks, hanging from a bar, using a specialized arm.
  photo  Courtesy/Helias Catholic High School The Robotics team at Helias Catholic High School poses for a photo at competition. This is the first year the team has made it to the Missouri/Kansas Regional Championship.

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