Cheshire High School senior Austin Xu recalls his introduction to robotics four years ago.
“I hadn’t been down to the first floor of the building before,” recalled Xu. “When I was in the (club) room, I had no idea what people were talking about, but they were really welcoming.”
From his humble beginnings, Xu worked hard to progress into joining Joey Kosover as this year’s co-captains of the Team 999 Robotics Club.
“They (mentors and students) have given me the opportunity to learn,” reflected Xu, who plans to pursue engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. “I have picked up real-world experiences through this program.”
This year has been a special one for the Cheshire MechaRAMS. After the pandemic caused last season to be cut short, the Rams were able to return to competition for the program’s 20th Anniversary.
“It is great to be back,” added mentor Alex Tsekhansky. “Most events were canceled last year due to the pandemic. Because of the asbestos removal at the school, we couldn’t get in the room, too. You can’t build without equipment.”
The club annually participates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) events from January through March, but work continues throughout the school year. For this season, the MechaRAMS created a robot in approximately six weeks.
To help with the process, the club still had their machine from back in 2020.
“During the season, you can learn things from previous competitions and make changes, but we start off with a design initially,” explained mentor Kurt Anders, who has worked with the MechaRAMS for four years.
For constructing their robot, 30 students broke into teams for building, programming, computer-aided design (CAD), and driving. Classmates learn how to use all of the equipment.
“The students need to make everything custom,” said Tsekhansky. “The programming has to be done at the same time.”
The students created a control panel to direct their robot.
“We put a joystick and handles on a board,” said junior Andrew Gershfeld. “We spray-painted the board and painted the back.”
This year’s robot cost around $5,000, but by the end, the project finished in excess of $10,000. To offset expenses, the MechaRAMS received sponsorship from Medtronic, OTIS, Relocation, East Coast Mechanical, Inc., and Cheshire Public Schools.
“We appreciate everyone who helped us out,” said Anders.
Back in January, the club learned that they would compete in a new program, Rapid React, for the FIRST Robotics Competition. In the event sponsored by Boeing International, schools team up to shoot red and blue cargo balls and also participate in a climbing challenge.
To start off, two alliances of three squads each take positions on a tarmac in front of a structure with two hubs. Teams can get two points by shooting a ball into the upper hub, while the lower one counts as one point.
Robots are allowed to start with one ball. During the opening 15 seconds, the machines start shooting without guidance, but for the remaining two minutes and 15 seconds, drivers can assist the robots with getting balls and shooting them.
“It was very interesting,” reflected Gershfeld. “It was a fun game that involved a lot of challenges. We did a lot of brainstorming and created a robot that did very well.”
On their robot, the MechaRAMS inserted a censor and camera, so that the machine could differentiate between the red and blue balls. For the competition, Gershfeld drove the robot and picked up balls, while junior Noah Levine controlled shooting and climbing.
“We worked well together,” said Gershfeld.
To finish the event, robots climb up traverses to score more points for their team. The event resembles someone climbing the monkey bars on a playground.
“The driver drives under the bars and then extends the arms (called climbers) to attach and then swing from them,” explained Anders.
The MechaRAMS enjoy the chance to work with different teams.
“It is uncommon that we get to work with other schools, so that (activity) is a fun experience,” explained Kosover.
To make for an even playing field, robots can only weight up to 120 pounds.
“Every robot needs to pass inspection for mechanics and programming before the competition,” stated Tsekhansky.
The MechaRAMS shined in making the quarterfinals of their events on March 12-13 (Wilby High School in Waterbury) and April 9 (Hartford). At the second competition, Tsekhansky was nominated for the Woodie Flowers Award. The honor recognizes hardworking mentors.
“It was awesome,” reflected Anders. “It is rare that you get nominated for that award. There are only five people who get put up for that.”
The MechaRAMS were invited to the district championship in Springfield, Massachusetts, but didn’t end up attending the event on Easter weekend.
“We found out right before the event and didn’t feel that we could prepare in time,” explained Anders.
The MechaRAMS are waiting to see they can display their two robots in the Cheshire Memorial Day Parade.
Team 999 is now preparing for next season, in which they hope to make states, districts, and Nationals.
“We are planning to do summer learning for new students, so they can start off strong,” stated Gershfeld.
Through the club, students have found new opportunities in college.
“If I didn’t do robotics, I don’t think that I would be going into computer science,” said Kosover, who will be attending the University of Connecticut.