Twenty-seven teams from 10 Mid-South schools recently gathered in the Brighton High School gymnasium for a battle of the bots. The Brighton High Robotics Club hosted its first VEX Robotics competition on Jan. 5.

When registration opened in November, six teams applied. That number more than quadrupled two months later, not a bad showing for a program only in its second year.

Middle and high school competitors from across the area invented months into the construction and programming of their entry bots. While they focused on the combatants, Brighton’s robotics club faculty advisor Cheryl Jacobs worked the logistics of the school’s first effort.

“It’s the same as with any other first-time run: You forget one thing, go back and fix it, then find another thing,” Jacobs said with a laugh. “I worked through the [winter] break to make sure things went as smoothly as possible.”

Certain things could not be avoided: Delays in equipment reception, for one. Another hiccup involved a software update for the bots that seemed to cause problems with brain connection. The commands for the bots are written on a computer then transferred to the bot as its operation’s protocol and stored on its internal drive (“brain”).

As one of the Brighton teams readied its bot for test runs, I witnessed first hand failed brain connectivity. The bot, connected to the laptop by the same sort of micro-USB you would change an Samsung phone with, could not receive the new commands: The computer did not recognize the connection.

Freshman Bryton Therkildsen worked on the bot’s programming at home over the holiday break.

“Everything worked fine on my laptop, not problems at all,” Therkildsen said. “The connection issues only came up when we connected it to the school’s system.”

I saw Therkildsen the next day at the competition and found out the secret: His personal system and the schools ran the same program but with a slightly different programming language. Think American English versus British. A slight modification later and Brighton’s bot connected without a glitch.

Registration on the day of started at 7 a.m. and offered teams chances to perform last-minute bot checks and adjustments. It also offered teams a chance to intermingle and seek or offer advice to one another.

“The best help you can get is from your peers,” Jacobs said to her students as they worked to fix their brain connectivity issue. “This is a learning experience: Someone else might have figured a workaround to the same problem that we haven’t found yet.”

Three fields awaited the teams on the gymnasium floor: 12 feet by 12 feet, divided in half. Three posts with flags, three red and three blue, faced a net wall. In the field’s center sat three platforms – red, blue, and yellow on top – while yellow balls and half blue/half red caps littered the mat. On each of the remaining three sides stood posts of varying height.

Four teams would assemble at each field: Two on red, two on blue. Each two-minute qualifying round consisted of a 15-second autonomous period where the bot would follow its core programming followed by a driver-controlled period. At time’s end, one color or the other advanced by total points.

Points could be scored in a number of ways: Flip caps to the appropriate color or place them on posts with the team’s color face-up; toggle the flags (with stipulations); king of the hill with placement either on the team’s color or, preferably and for the high score, on the topmost yellow platform.

Those stipulations with the flags? They sat top-middle-bottom: Bottom and middle could be touched by the bot’s arms; the top, though, could only be moved by a launched ball! Use of the machine’s arm to flip the top flag would earn the responsible team a disqualification (which happened to the Kingsbury Falcon Force in Qualifier No. 10).

In total, there teams went through 33 qualifier rounds, 10 semi-final rounds, and a single ultimate. BenBot, a Jackson Area Robotics out of Jackson, Tenn. team, took the top spot, followed by Shirebots Team No. 3 out of Greenbrier, Tenn., and Jackson Area Robotics Team No. 4, also of Jackson, Tenn.

Brighton’s home teams landed in 19th place (Team No. 3) for its top spot, followed by a 22nd placement (Team No. 2). Five teams either no-showed their events or found themselves disqualified.

Brighton’s Team No. 3 also brought home the Judges Award in recognition of its efforts before and during the event.

Jacobs is proud of how her teams performed in their first home outing and already looks forward to the 2020 VEX event.

Jeff Ireland is The Leader's sports editor. To contact him, call 901-476-7116 or email jireland@covingtonleader.com.​

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