Robots 

Throwing mechanics

Suddenly, the robot can’t throw a Frisbee. Only a week ago, it was slinging discs through a slot in a board 30 feet away. It could throw rapid fire—three Frisbees in half as many seconds—and it could alter the velocity, always sending a tightly spinning disc within a few inches of the target. But now the robot’s throws flutter on a wobbly trajectory. The Frisbees smack the board or ricochet through the slot without luster.

Chris Jacaruso has seen enough. The coach of the Missoula Robotics Team (they call themselves “Mr. T”) and a Sentinel High industrial technology teacher knows that in just 10 days, on Feb. 19, competition rules dictate that Mr. T must stop building its robot, zip-tie it in a bag and box it up. Team members won’t be allowed to touch it again until their regional competition begins in mid-March at the Maverick Center outside Salt Lake City, Utah. For Mr. T, now is the time to focus all of its attention on figuring out what’s wrong with the robot’s Frisbee stroke.

“Everybody stop what you’re doing,” Jacaruso says over the din of Missoula high school students hammering metal, splitting wires and sawing plastic. “We need to have a meeting.”

For the past four years, Mr. T has competed in the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school-aged kids. After paying a $5,000 entrance fee, FIRST competitors get six weeks to design, fabricate and program a robot that must perform a specific task. Last year, robots had to shoot basketballs through hoops. This year they must chuck Frisbees through a goal. Beginning in March, more than 2,300 teams will compete in regional competitions worldwide. They will all vie for a spot at the April 24 world championships in St. Louis.

But Mr. T will vie for nothing unless it can remedy the robot’s glitch. After some hushed discussion with several of the Mr. T builders, Jacaruso addresses the 25-member team. “So it sounds like we’ve got a problem with the loader,” he says. No one speaks up. “So is this true or false? Do we have a problem with the Frisbee loader?”

Hellgate junior Sam Crawford clears his throat. He explains that the loader is a fraction of an inch too large and the Frisbees are loading off-kilter. It’s making them flutter. “We just need to make it smaller,” he says.

Jacaruso looks around the room to see if anyone else has anything to add. “Okay then,” he says. “Let’s fix it.”

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