This week, a Manheim Township High School student will be the sole Lancaster County representative competing against students from 63 countries in a robotics world championship.
Freshman Michael Gallagher, 15, and 11 Chester County students on the Out of the Box Robotics team are one of two teams representing Pennsylvania in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge World Championship. The team earned a spot in the competition in Houston, Texas, after winning an Inspire Award at the Pennsylvania State Championship at Saucon Valley Middle School March 12.
The Inspire Award is presented to one team that judges feel have shown success in designing and building their robot. The winning team, which also qualified for the world championship, earned the most points in head-to-head challenges and tasks.
Only 160 of the 6,400 FIRST Tech Challenge teams globally will compete in the world championship. More than 60,000 will be in attendance at the competition held Wednesday through Saturday.
“It’s definitely a little bit stressful, but it’s also a proud moment knowing that I’m representing this sector of my area and also just Pennsylvania in general,” Gallagher said.
Even though the Out of the Box Robotics team is based in Chester County about an hour away from his Manheim Township home, Gallagher was drawn to the group by its past accomplishments.
The team qualified for the world championships five times, not including this year, since it was established in 2015. Gallagher said he joined the nonprofit a year and a half ago.
Upon seeing the team’s past robots, Gallagher said, “I saw the complexity of the robots and how professional they were yet they were still able to implement a smooth social environment.”
He was connected to the team through one of its volunteer mentors, Josh Beauchamp.
Joining Out of the Box seemed like a logical step on Gallagher’s way to one day becoming an engineer. Right now, he’s narrowed his electrical aspirations down to aerospace engineering – the latter of which plays a huge hand in building a robot.
“You have programmers next to you who teach you about computer science and computer programming,” Gallagher said. “Then you have the build team that teaches you about the physical electronics that go into each thing. I found it very, very helpful with understanding the field in general.”
As a fairly new member to the team, Gallagher said he mainly builds the robot because that tends to be simpler to learn. Meanwhile, he is learning Java programming to fill the role of programmer that will be vacated when a teammate graduates.
Out of the Box doesn’t keep its members boxed into a particular skill set, Gallagher said. His teammates are always open to teaching each other the different aspects of building robots.
“The whole group has these really good skills that help us with making the robot, and those skills and that experience is what makes their ideas so useful,” he said.
‘The stakes are higher’
Each team spends months preparing its robot for a set of tasks revealed to the teams prior to the start of the season. This year, robots must be designed and built for the game “Freight Frenzy,” presented by Raytheon Technologies research center based in Massachusetts.
In the game, robots are placed into a field with four ‘warehouse’ zones and a three-tier carousel or ‘shipping hub.’ The robots must carry foam blocks from the ‘warehouse’ to place onto the carousel in the field.
That in itself might seem easy but there’s an extra challenge in the field: the terrain is not all flat. Robots have to be designed to traverse pipes and other obstacles.
To complete the tasks, sets of two teams are grouped into an alliance. Then, two alliances compete against each other to earn the most points.
“Having to work together with another robot is always definitely a difficulty, especially because you don’t know how that other robot is designed.” Gallagher said.
Teams are also given several secondary tasks that can earn them points. For example, balancing the weight of the alliance’s ‘shipping hub’ can earn the alliance six points.
From regional competitions to the global championship, teams can continue to improve their robot, learning from glitches or mistakes that might have cropped up in earlier games.
For example, Gallagher said the team lost points in earlier games because the robot moved too fast or didn’t place items accurately.
“For things like regionals and states, we work on just efficiency,” Gallagher said. “We don’t have to do everything, but we have to do the things we do the best.”
To prepare for the global championship, Gallagher said the team is updating the robot to become more efficient and address inconsistencies, such as the lack of accuracy.
“All the stakes are higher, so everything has to be better,” he said.
Gallagher said the team is setting their sights high to win the competition overall, but even a nomination for the Inspire award out of the 160 competing teams would be an accomplishment.
“We’re trying to make a robot as fast as possible and the best out there so we can win,” he said.