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Gearing Up: Davis robotics team prepares to defend title

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From page A1 | January 13, 2013 |

About two dozen teenagers filled Steve Harvey’s classroom at Da Vinci Charter Academy on Saturday morning.

Some were sitting on the floor, others at tables, still more standing at the whiteboard, all focused on the task at hand. Everywhere around them were parts: batteries, pvc pipe, metal pieces, circuit boards, laptop computers, wiring. Even Frisbees.

This is Citrus Circuits, the two-time defending regional robotics team champion, made up of students in grades nine through 12 from several Davis schools. Their task? To build a remote-controlled robot measuring several feet wide and several more feet tall, and weighing around 120 pounds. It must be able to pick Frisbee discs up off the floor, shoot them 18 feet through the air and through a small square-shaped goal. Then, for good measure, the robot must climb a tall pyramid, bar by bar.

It’s a tough task, but if anyone can build such a robot, it’s Citrus Circuits.

The team has been around for eight years under the leadership of Harvey, though the competition they are entering has been around much longer.

Segway inventor Dean Kamen started the FIRST Robotics competition in 1989 as a way to get high school students interested in engineering. Each year, the competition focuses on a different game. Three years ago, teams built robots that played soccer. Last year it was basketball. And this year it’s Frisbee.

Thousands of teams from all over the world participate, with each team receiving identical kits containing everything from small motors and batteries to automation components, which teams can supplement with additional materials of their own. All teams received their kits on Jan. 5 and have six weeks to build their robots. Regional competitions get underway in March with winners going on to the championships in St. Louis in April.

For the first six years that Harvey’s students competed, they struggled to even make it out of the quarterfinals at regionals. In a nutshell, they were outmatched, competing against Silicon Valley high schools with generous sponsors like Google and Chevron, Lockheed and NASA, who could pay for extra parts and competitions for their robots.

“It was frustrating for us,” Harvey said of the team’s early lack of success. “Every year we’d see all these really good teams with major sponsors win, and I’d wonder, ‘Will we ever be that good?’ ”

Two years ago, they finally were, defeating those same teams and many more at the Sacramento regional competition held at UC Davis.

Last year, they not only won again, they dominated the competition from start to finish, taking over first place on the leader board early on the first day of competition and never relinquishing it. Their basketball-shooting robot rarely missed a shot. The team headed to the national competition in St. Louis last April with high hopes, but a mechanical failure suffered early in the competition left their robot unable to shoot and dashed their hopes for a national title.

Absent that failure, Harvey said, “I think we would have definitely gone on to the semifinals and maybe even the finals.”

They know their presence made an impact anyway.

Final power rankings — based on all competitions last year — put Citrus Circuits’ robot in 44th place out of 2,500 robots.

“Other teams were definitely watching us,” said Harvey.

Now they are focused on a third straight regional title and another shot at the national crown. But it won’t be easy.

Shooting Frisbees — not to mention figuring out how their robot will pick them up off the floor — is a tougher engineering challenge than shooting basketballs, says team mentor Anthony Diaz-Vigil, who graduated from Da Vinci in 2011 but returned to help out the team.

“You have to have a different intake to pick up the frisbees,” he noted. “It matters if they are right-side-up or not. That didn’t matter with basketballs.”

Then there is the tower climbing.

Each year the FIRST competition requires two different tasks, one generally easier than the other. Last year, for example, the robots had to collect basketballs off the floor and shoot them — the harder task — then balance on a bridge — the easier task.

This year, Diaz-Vigil said, both tasks are challenging.

“Climbing a tower is harder than balancing on a bridge,” he noted.

In order to tackle all of the challenges ahead, the team split up into small groups, each tasked with a specific job. On Saturday morning, Jasmine Zhou and Amelia Fineberg were writing code and running diagnostics, while other students were focused on the Frisbee-shooting mechanism or the rollers that will be used to pick up frisbees.

Most of the students, Harvey said, join the team with very little experience in robotics and learn as they go.

Team captain Helena Molinski, for example, was a newcomer last year who joined the team at Harvey’s urging.

Engineering had never been an interest, she said. In fact, she planned to become a fashion designer.

But one year later, so enamored is she of mechanical engineering it’s become her new goal and what she plans to focus on in college next year.

Many past team members have gone on to major in engineering in college and many, like Diaz-Vigil, return to mentor new team members.

Devin Castellucci has been returning as a mentor since he graduated from Davis High in 2007. He now works at RoboteX in Palo Alto and credits his work with Citrus Circuits for his success.

“I only got that job because of my experience with FIRST,” Castellucci said.

Other team members gain a different kind of experience through the FIRST competition — namely, marketing and fundraising.

In fact, while many team members were busy building their robot on Saturday, several more were at the Davis Farmer’s Market fundraising for the team. To build the robot, compete regionally and, hopefully, go to St. Louis for the championships, the team needs to raise more than $50,000. They made a big dent in that last month when several team members met with UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi as well as several vice chancellors and college deans.

The Citrus Circuits team made a presentation and demonstrated a robot and came away with pledges of $20,000 in sponsorships from Katehi and several UCD colleges, Harvey said.

“We can now pay for our competition and the parts we need,” he added.

They’ll still have to come up with additional funds if they end up winning at regionals again and earn themselves another trip to St. Louis in April.

But for now, they’ll spend the next five weeks building that robot. Feb. 19 will be their final build day and they will compete for the first time in Madera in early March. The all-important regionals take place March 21-23 in The Pavilion at UCD with the public welcome to come cheer them on.

To learn more or to donate to the team, visit their website at http://www.citruscircuits.org.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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