Juliet Rowan is a reporter for Bay of Plenty Times Weekend

Robot teens taking on the world with their clever machines

In an upstairs room at the House of Science in Tauranga, three high-school students are frantically building a robot for the robotics world championship.

The team is trying to create a bigger, better, faster model than the one which recently won them the national high school title.

The trio, Jacob Church, Sam Gillies-Smith and Callum McLeod, are huddled over a mass of metal - bearings, bolts, axles and more.

Sprawled around a table, they banter and bicker, 17-year-old Callum, the extrovert of the group, telling Bay of Plenty Times Weekend that robotics is highly competitive.

"[We fight] all the time," he says. "But most of the time we're arguing about the same thing."

The boys have less than a month to build and program a robot for the VEX Robotics World Championship in the United States.

The competition pits 1400 of the best high school robotics teams from around the world against each other in robot sport.

This year, it's robot volleyball.

In a YouTube video about the event https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=46N6c2QBVOQ, a girl talks about the thrill of competing in robotics.

"You're still playing a sport," she says. "You just have to build your athlete to play the sport."

HEAVYWEIGHT TALENT

Last year, 500 teams from 31 countries competed at the worlds, each designing and building their own robot.

Each robot must contain no more than 12 motors, or 10 motors and pneumatics (air pistons, Jacob explains), and dimensions are set at a maximum of 18 inches cubed [45.7cm cubed] at the start of a game.

"[But] you're allowed to expand infinitely outside of that during the match," says Callum. "It can get as big as it wants."

The robots are utilitarian in appearance (there are no R2D2s or C3P0s in the mix), but they still need to be masters at their game.

In the upcoming competition, the robots will need to pick up and fling stars and cubes across a barrier on a court - and do so quickly.

There are four robots in a game, two on each side in "alliances", and teams score extra points for objects that land in "far zones" at the ends of the court.

For some sections of the competition, the robots must be driven by their teams; in others, they operate autonomously, having been pre-programmed.

The robots are in a race against the clock and Callum says the atmosphere among competitors is tense.

"All of them are a little bit nervous and a little bit angry at everybody else."

He says this is especially true "when you tip their robot in the auton [autonomous drive section] and they can't get back up".

This was something Jacob, 15, managed to do four times at the New Zealand VEX EDR Robotics Championships in Auckland last month.

His team soared with the advantage, particularly after one opposition robot collapsed on itself, snapping several axles.

"He wasn't very popular after that," says Sam, also 15.

From left, Callum McLeod, Sam Gillies-Smith and Jacob Church build their robot for the high school world robotics championships in the United States next month. Photo/John Borren
From left, Callum McLeod, Sam Gillies-Smith and Jacob Church build their robot for the high school world robotics championships in the United States next month. Photo/John Borren

BETTERING A WINNER

The robot that won the House of Science team the national crown was built by Dean Strydom, who recently left Tauranga to start university in Wellington, taking his creation with him.

Jacob, Sam and Callum are attempting to recreate and better Dean's winning robot, hoping it will fend off their main rivals from North America.

The United States and Canada are the dominant competitors in high school robotics but New Zealand also punches above its weight, says House of Science founder Chris Duggan.

"We've consistently featured in the top two or four alliances at the finals," she says.

"It's the whole Kiwi mentality, the Number 8-wire thing. We can find a way to fix something and as a country, we value innovation and we value technology and we value science."

The country sends seven or eight teams a year to the decade-old VEX world championship and teams from Tauranga have been among the strongest competitors.

In 2013, Otumoetai College teams came first and second, and last year, a House of Science team made it to the quarter-final of its division, which featured 100 teams.

That's compared to 70 teams at nationals, for which House of Science had three teams competing this year.

Callum, who was part of last year's worlds team, says despite the tension at major competitions, robotics is a very social pursuit.

"I've met most of my friends through robotics," he says, listing off places they live including Auckland, Kentucky, Los Angeles and China.

"A lot of people like me," he quips, "but only in robotics."

LEARNING TEAMWORK

"What is it about robotics that floats your boat?" Bay of Plenty Times Weekend asks Sam, who doesn't get a chance to answer before Callum fires back.

"Robotics doesn't float boats," Callum says with a laugh. "It sinks them."

At that moment, Jacob's mum Karen arrives with a foot-long Subway sandwich to get her son through an afternoon of robot building.

It is 4pm but the boys will stay at the House of Science headquarters on Grey St until after 7pm.

This is their Wednesday and Friday night routine until they leave for Kentucky on April 19.

Their manager and "robotics mum" Toni de Rijk says one of the best aspects of robotics is that it teaches the teenagers teamwork.

She says the kids who get involved in robotics can be quirky and the social aspect is as rewarding for them as learning design, mechanics, programming and general electronic skills.

Toni says despite the tension of the competition environment, a great camaraderie exists between teams, even among those from different countries.

The boys also testify to the willingness of competitors to lend them parts, saying they are happy to return the favour.

Toni is heading to Louisville, Kentucky with the team, and when asked how well she knows the trio, she also gets cut off by Callum.

"Oh Christ," he says. "My mum calls her my robotics mum. That's how long you've known me, eh."

Toni is not worried about taking the three teens on the week-long trip, saying "these type of kids are not into partying".

Callum makes a loud "pfftt" sound and says: "I went to a party once. I was 8."

He ribs Toni good-naturedly, suggesting he and the others will cause trouble.

"It's not fun without shenanigans," Callum says.

Jacob: "Go out for parties."

Callum: "Yeah, all the parties."

But Toni knows the reality of robotics is different, saying her sons preferred building robots to hitting the town when teenagers.

Her two boys went through Otumoetai College's robotics programme and the eldest, Shane, 23, is now a design engineer who continues to mentor the House of Science and Otumoetai College teams.

At university, he studied mechatronic engineering ("a lovechild between mechanical and electronic engineering," explains Toni), and her other son Lucas is in his fourth year of a degree in the same subject.

Toni and husband Paul have volunteered for the past three years helping the House of Science robotics teams.

"We saw our kids get so much out of it," Toni says. "When they left home, we wanted to offer it to other kids.

"We've [also] seen that it's a direct path into a career and that's where they're expecting there to be job shortages and labour [shortages] in the future."

House of Science founder Chris Duggan says robots are going to be used in a multitude of ways in the future. Photo/John Borren
House of Science founder Chris Duggan says robots are going to be used in a multitude of ways in the future. Photo/John Borren

ROBOTIC WORLD

Chris Duggan says high school robotics programmes take time and money to run, and there is a perception they are for geeky kids.

But she says successful robotics requires a mix of personalities and skills, including good communication, and the need for workers in the industry is going to be huge.

"One of the things is we don't even know how robots are going to be used 20 years from now, or even 10 years from now. So the fact that these kids have got the skills to not only build the robot, but think outside the box and problem solve and to use modern technology to get their head around these things, that's where the key skills are."

Health sciences and search-and-rescue were just two areas where robotics was becoming crucial.

"Combined with nanotechnology and combined with electrical engineering and all these other types of engineering, it's just such a powerful, powerful tool."

Priority One/University of Waikato innovation manager Shane Stuart also says automation is going to be a significant trend in the future.

"Whether it's robotics per se, or whether it's the individual parts and smarts that come together, it's certainly going to be a significant and growing chunk of the high school workforce."

Karen Church says robotics is providing great opportunities for Jacob, who is "obsessive" about programming and has a room filled with robotics projects.

Jacob says when he's not programming for robotics competitions the rest of his time is spent "playing computer games or programming a game at home, or programming other programmes".

A student at Bethlehem College, he went to extraordinary lengths before nationals to ensure the team's robot was programmed for every eventuality in the autonomous section of the competition.

"Most people just stick with one [programme]," says Callum. "Jacob programmed seven different autons so that he could literally just flick a switch on the robot ... and it could do whatever he programmed for that one auton. So if another robot went to grab a thing that we were grabbing, he just changes the dial beforehand and we do a different thing instead."

Jacob says he spent four or five days a week doing eight hours of programming in the month leading up to the competition.

"This is my first year of doing it so I don't have any code to just rely on. I had to write it all from scratch whereas some teams, because they've done it for a few years, have code banks."

Callum says Jacob was also a keen observer of the other teams in order to gain a competitive edge for his crew.

"Jacob's a downright scout for robotics," says Callum, Toni adding that "scouting", or seeing what the other teams are up to with their robots, is an important part of the sport.

Priority One/University of Waikato innovation manager Shane Stuart says a significant chunk of the high school workforce will end up in robotics. Photo/John Borren
Priority One/University of Waikato innovation manager Shane Stuart says a significant chunk of the high school workforce will end up in robotics. Photo/John Borren

HOOKED ON ROBOTICS

Despite neither Toni nor her husband being engineers, the couple have learned plenty about robotics since their sons got involved in Years 10 and 12.

When Paul arrives at the House of Science soon after Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, he is quick to put on his glasses and get down to the business of helping the boys build their robot.

He is hands-on and offering advice about where he thinks parts should go, and it is obvious he knows what to do.

"I learned it with my boys. I got hooked," he says, likening preparing for robotics championships to a one-year America's Cup campaign.

"There's a new game each year. You start designing, you start building and you start testing and you try and make it better and better, and then the end of the year, you have the national champs and the world champs. It's a technology race for that year."

Plans for new competition robots begin the day the world championships end.

Says Toni: "There's this big build-up to the finals and then they release the new game. Even on the plane [back to New Zealand], our guys are drawing pictures and things for the next game."

Callum, who is going to worlds for the second time, says his enthusiasm landed him in trouble last year.

"I was planning and got yelled at for writing equations on the plane because somebody thought I was planning something [sinister]."

TEARING A ROBOT APART

Because the competition briefs change annually, the lifespan of a high school robot is limited.

Once a competition is over, the robots are typically dismantled and the parts recycled for future robots.

"Otherwise you've got about $4000 of equipment just sitting there," says Sam.

"If we had infinite funding, we'd be more than happy to leave them together."

Jacob says pulling apart a robot is "so sad" and Callum agrees it is "the saddest thing".

Sam, a student at ACG Tauranga, describes the process as "very painful", saying it is hard to watch the destruction of a year's worth of work.

For Sam, his love of robotics grew out of a passion for Lego.

He did Lego Mindstorms at Otumoetai Intermediate and later became the second team member to join the House of Science robotics club.

Callum, now in his last year at Tauranga Boys' College, was another founding member.

Toni says the House of Science began its robotics programme three years ago in an effort to broaden the reach of robotics beyond a few select schools.

The House of Science now has 25 students in its robotics club, Chris Duggan saying they are lucky to receive community funding to keep the cost low for families.

Toni is also grateful to sponsors of the championship team, saying it has received prize money from the Royal Society of New Zealand and grants from the Lion Foundation and Pub Charity.

Kiwibots, a charitable trust, runs the national competition and supplies paid parts to the House of Science, while Ian Macrae of Page Macrae Engineering has generously sponsored Otumoetai College and House of Science robotic teams, Toni says.

Her team is still on the lookout for more sponsors for the upcoming trip, which she says is likely to cost each student more than $3500.

BRIGHT FUTURES

Whatever the cost, the boys' journey to the world championships is full of possibility.

Jacob has discovered Nasa is a sponsor of the event and with a previous Auckland robotics talent getting an internship with Microsoft and a job interview at Google, the boys are keen to build their best robot yet.

Callum wants to make robotics a career, saying he plans on studying mechatronics at university in Auckland or Palmerston North ("either of the Masseys") because of the doors it can open.

"There's lots of openings in the medical fields where robots are becoming necessary or military fields where robots are becoming necessary for disarming bombs.

"The plan is more or less getting into that field and making the world a better place by using something I love."

And who could argue with that?

For more articles from this region, go to

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 23 May 2017 04:34:05 Processing Time: 471ms