Windsor-based Black Diamond Robotics prepares for tech championship |
James Redmond

Back to: News

Windsor-based Black Diamond Robotics prepares for tech championship

A group of students worked late Thursday in Windsor to solve an odd problem: How to get through airport security with a robot and its jumble of wires, batteries and motors connected to a cellphone.

The students — four in high school and one middle school — together make up Windsor-based Black Diamonds Robotics. This past month, the team and its robot — simply designated Black Diamond Robotics No. 9899 — took first place at the state's FIRST Tech Challenge.

That means these kids built, programmed and piloted a robot against 59 other teams from across Colorado in a high-stakes arena challenge and came out on top.

The team's victory at the state competition earned them a chance to compete this weekend in the FTC West Super-Regional Championship in Tacoma, Wash. If they do well enough there, they'll advance to international-level competition.

“I think that creates a wonderful parent-child connection. It’s our family hobby.” Janelle Rohrbaugh

Getting a robot through airport security is just one of the many challenges they've faced together as a team. The students essentially worked as engineers to design and create a robot to solve this year's challenge. Robots in this competition had to be capable of picking up plastic balls of the correct color, launching the balls into a goal a few feet off the ground and moving a yoga ball.

Recommended Stories For You

Building Colorado's top robot took hundreds of hours from each team member, said Joshua Rohrbaugh, a sophomore at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins. Some nights it meant a little less sleep. It basically always meant less free time. Designing a mechanism to collect the plastic balls and load them into the cannon took the team most of winter break, for instance.

Getting the cannon to work was a whole different challenge. When the team first tried it, the ball didn't leave the barrel. A few tweaks later, it launched a ball a couple inches — far short of the several feet it'd needed to travel. When Rohrbaugh thought he got the design figured out, it launched the ball so high it hit the ceiling with a loud thud.

"That was the best," he said with a smile.

The robots compete head-to-head in teams of two. Each team can remotely pilot their machine for part of the challenge, but rules require the robot to compete on its own for a round, operating solely on the team's programming.

Just getting the robot to drive in a straight line can be challenging, said Joshua Rohrbaugh's brother, David Rohrbaugh, a senior at Liberty Common and the team's software specialist.

The 30-pound plastic and metal robot functions well without a remote control. Everyone on the team agrees No. 9899's autonomous operation is one of its strengths. However, there were a lot of bugs to find and fix in the programming code, David admitted.

His dad, John Rohrbaugh, helped a lot.

John and his fellow coach, Tom Schmerge — both engineers — spend a lot of time with the team. They enjoy it. John gets to explore engineering and teach his trade to his sons. Schmerge's daughter, Aubrey, a junior at Windsor High School, is on the team, too. She's the robot's pilot, and does much of the team's fabrication work.

Brecken and Kayden Housden — a freshman at Windsor High and seventh-grader at Windsor Middle School, respectively — round out the team. They're the newest additions, so they do a little of everything to help and learn where they can.

Black Diamond Robotics isn't affiliated with a school. The team operates out a combination robotics lab, fabrication studio and practice arena set up in Schmerge's garage in south Windsor.

Her family's pretty cool about letting robots take over their garage, Aubrey said. Her family gets into the competition.

Tom and John have put in just as many hours as each of the kids — at least 300, they estimate.

"I think that creates a wonderful parent-child connection," said John's wife, Janelle Rohrbaugh. "It's our family hobby."

After a bit more work and collaboration, the Black Diamond Robotics team sussed out another solution Thursday night: a wooden, wheeled box to carry No. 9899 through the airport.

It took a bit of work, but the team managed to get airport security and the airline to let them gate-check the robot. That way, the students and their coaches could at least explain to airport security what their collection of wires, motors and metal is: a solution.

Seeking sponsors

Windsor-based robotics club Black Diamond Robotics wants to find more sponsors to help keep the team of middle and high school students competitive.

The team won first place in the Colorado FIRST Tech Challenge championship this past month, beating 59 other Colorado teams to earn the title.

On Friday, the team will fly to Tacoma, Wash., to compete in the FTC West Super-Regional Championship.

The team has to build a new robot for each competition, and that costs between $1,000 and $2,000, said Aubrey Schmerge, 17, a junior at Windsor High School.

If the team manages to advance past the state competition, those costs can more than double and sometimes triple, with travel and lodging expenses required for out-of-state competitions.

Anyone interested in becoming a sponsor of the team or finding other ways to help can call team coach Tom Schmerge at (970) 672-3983.