The playing fields at the center of Ballston Spa Middle School’s gymnasium Saturday hosted a different kind of sport: battle of the robots.
Rock music blared from speakers. An announcer counted down the time. Judges in black and white stripes scored the match as the LEGO robots rolled and crawled across the field of play. The robots didn’t confront each other, confined to their own course, but the teams that controlled them battled to finish the most tasks and rack up the most points.
The competitors, elementary school robot engineers, peered at their robots as teammates rushed to fix an arm or get a motor to run again. Others just jumped and clapped and chanted their way through the fast 150 seconds they had in the arena roped off from parents and other teams.
Overhead cameras captured the action below for parents to watch on big screens from the gym’s bleachers.
The playing field was set with a collection of small missions — drop a small water barrel onto a platform, pull a lever, turn a faucet — the teams choose to attack with their robots. The robots are carefully constructed, sometimes from generic kits, and then outfitted with tools to complete different challenges.
“The robot design is very simple, so we put most of our effort into the attachments,” said fifth-grader Hudson Seplowitz of the Milton Terrace Elementary School Cyborg Unicorns team.
The attachments give the robot the ability to maneuver through the maze of tasks. How each team sets about accomplishing those tasks results in endless differences in style and strategy. Some robots are small and compact, while others take on more weight. Some teams eye the easier challenges in an effort to tally points, while others first head for the furthest and most difficult to reach.
“Everyone has a different attachment, so we get to make it what we need it to do,” said fifth-grader Brenna Walsh, also a member of team Cyborg Unicorns. “So it’s like our own thing.”
The Cyborg Unicorns went on to win the day’s award for best robot design.
A Queensbury team also visited Ballston Spa for the competition, but the bulk of the competitors hailed from the home district, which introduced robotics into its schools about a decade ago.
The district’s elementary schools each have after-school robotics clubs, where teams of students spend time each week — and sometimes on Saturdays — building and programming their robots for competition.
The high school and middle school robotics clubs organized and managed Saturday’s competition.
“As soon as I say go, they are not allowed to control their robots at all,” said Dylan Jacobs, a Ballston Spa High School senior who announced robot matches Saturday. “They are completely autonomous.”
The competition also served as a qualifier in the region’s FIRST LEGO League, a series of similar LEGO-based robot challenges.
Diane Irwin, the science coordinator for Ballston Spa schools, said the robots competition and the practices that build to it helps strengthen a variety of student skills. Not only are they introduced to basic robotics, they also work on teams of as many as a dozen other students and have to cooperate to overcome problems and accomplish shared goals.
“How do I problem-solve, test something, change and go back to redesign,” Irwin said.