Nudging the joystick forward on the video game controller in his hands, Aidan Flaherty watched as the foot-high robot in front of him sprang to life. In a whirr of electric motors, the metal bot dug its four rubber wheels into foam pads arranged on the floor and zipped across the makeshift pen inside Ridgefield High School’s robotics classroom.
The machine halted near one of the six-inch steel barriers set up in a square to pen the robot in. With a twitch of the joysticks, spun the machine around on its axis.
The 15-year-old high school tapped a button on the gamepad, and the robot lowered a metal arm suspended on elastic bands. Another button press set two cylinders at the end of the arm rotating. From his vantage point, the robot vaguely resembled a miniaturized combine-harvester.
With a flick of his thumb, Flaherty sent the bot in a semicircle around the pen, scooping up tennis balls strewn on the floor and depositing them in a cage in the robot’s body.
“We spent the first week building the arm,” said Ryan Crist, 14, Flaherty’s team mate who stood beside him as he directed the robot up and onto a set of platforms meant to test the robot’s agility.
They programmed the robot to drive like a tank — forward and backward on the left joystick controls the two wheels on the left, the right joystick controls the wheels on the right. Push one forward and pull the other back, and the bot will spin on its axis. “It seemed easier,” Crist said.
Crist and Flaherty’s bot was just one of the robots built by the students at Ridgefield High School for Robotics I, a one-semester course is taught by Michael Murphy.
On Friday, Jan. 25, his students were hard at work tearing their creations apart bolt-by-bolt, as the rest of the school took their midterm exams.
The end of semester teardown was a little sad, admitted sophomore Andrew Preston, 14, but it served a purpose. “We’re going to break it down and show our design process,” he told The Press, shortly before he and his freshman teammate, 14-year-old Will DeSpirito, gave a presentation on their creation. They decided to build a smaller robot they nicknamed “the protobot that could,” for a basic design Murphy had them build earlier in the semester.
“I feel like we could have made it a lot better,” Preston said. “It was supposed to be the underdog, but…” his voice trailed off.
The pair considered equipping the robot with an arm or a claw, but finally settled on a flipping armature for flipping over plastic caps in the pen — which “like three other teams stole from us,” DeSpirito said.
Robots were put together by the students from a mix of kits supplied by the school. Sections of metal framing came with pre-drilled holes for screws and bolts, allowing students to build a basic frame. From there they could add electric motors and wheels or tank-like treads for mobility, and arms or claws for grabbing objects.
“It’s sort of like the old-school erector sets,” said Murphy.
His first assignment for students had them building a simple drivetrain bot — essentially a motor mounted in a frame with four wheels.
Adding swappable gears between the motor and the wheels forced the students to learn about gear-ratios, Murphy explained. Students could gear the robot to zip around at high speed, but it wouldn’t have the power to hop up over obstacles. The same rules applied when students began adding armatures to complete challenges in the pen, such as picking up tennis balls and flipping plastic disks — lower gears would let their robot lift heavier loads.
“One of my goals is so that you don’t have to be a super nerd” to complete the course,” Murphy explained.