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Wednesday, October 17 News

Chat with... New Canaan High School robotics team members Casey McCall and Josh Siegel

NEW CANAAN — It was the first day of spring break, but senior Josh Siegel, 17, and sophomore Casey McCall, 16, chose to spend their time at school.

Both boys, members of the New Canaan High School Robotics Team, were sitting around the table in the car shop room, where an SUV belonging to a teacher was parked with its hood open next to the rectangular area in which a metal device sat surrounded by cones.

“A robot is any piece of technology that does a task. Your phone is technically a robot. Your computer is technically a robot,” Siegel explained. But the nearby metal device had a more classically robotic look, with metal hinges that could raise and lower the device with the mechanical whirring of its small engines.

The robot is the result of a year of tinkering by members of the 12-man club and their faculty adviser, James Zambrano, of the Career and Technical Education Department, and will travel to Louisville, Ky., at the end of the month to compete in the Vex Robotics World Championships.

The team qualified for the championship after a strong showing at a regional tournament in Worcester, Mass., in early March, and after honing their design over the course of several months of competitions.

Each competition is scored based on a robot’s ability to perform a certain task, as assigned by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation. This year, teams were asked to design a robot that could pick up and stack cones on mobile goals, which could then be deposited in designated scoring areas.

“The main focus is stacking cones on these five-pound mobile goals. Each team has corresponding red or blue mobile goals that they stack (cones) on. Then the goal is to move those mobile goals hopefully with cones into scoring areas,” McCall said. The scoring areas are worth five, 10 or 20 points, depending on the difficulty of the location. For each cone stacked on a mobile goal, two additional points are awarded.

To begin, each team is paired with another, and those pairs compete in a two-minute, two-on-two style race, 15 seconds of which showcases each robot’s autonomous capability, and the rest of which has teams using remote controls to guide the machines.

The entire contraption is pieced together and programmed by the students, using metal pieces sold by the REC Foundation.

“You have to buy the metal and then cut it and shape it and put it into size and buy screws and gears and design the whole robot from scratch,” said Siegel, who is the president of the club and, with one other student, built the robot, staying after school most days to tinker with the design.

The programming, too, was done by Siegel, with the help of McCall, both of whom are self-taught using YouTube videos.

“I speak Spanish, and Spanish was easier than learning code,” Siegel said.

Throughout the year, the team continued to hone the design, borrowing successful techniques from other teams. One important change that the group will be taking to nationals is a front-loading system with an arm that comes directly out over the goal it aims to pick up and travels a shorter distance than the original back-loading system the club had previously employed.

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“If I have a huge arm with that cone on the end, compared to a small arm with a cone on the end, it makes it a lot easier for the motors to move and it also takes less time because you’re moving a smaller distance,” Siegel said, still tinkering away on his day off.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586

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