DECATUR – As high school students from around Illinois fill the Decatur Indoor Sports Center (DISC) on Millikin University’s campus on Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11, Millikin’s Blue Bots Robotics Team will be there to help prep them for the battlefield.
The Blue Bots, made up of Millikin students interested in robotics, will be on hand to serve as mentors and judges to the more than 60 high school robotics teams that will be in competition at the VEX Illinois State High School Robotics Championship, with spots at the VEX Robotics World Championships on the line.
This will be the second and largest high school robotics competition hosted at Millikin this semester, as competitors put their robotic creations to the test in the field of competition. Around the world, robotics is growing as a sport, with more than 23,000 VEX teams from 58 countries participating in over 2,300 events worldwide.
Millikin sophomore Alexander Harshman is the President of the Blue Bots and a Data Science and Computer Science double major. He found a love of robotics after Dr. Dan Miller, the team’s advisor and Professor in Math & Computational Sciences, recommended he check it out.
“In high school, we didn’t have any sort of robotics stuff. I knew Dr. Miller and he recommended that I join. I had such a good time that I kept doing it,” Harshman said. “We are one of the only cross-country traveling student organizations. We have gone to Michigan and Indiana and we have gone down to Texas when we compete in the World Championships.”
Each year, a new engineering challenge is presented to the teams in the VEX competitions in the form of a game. Students, with guidance from their teachers and mentors, build innovative robots to win in competition with other teams. The 2022-23 challenge is called Spin Up.
The Spin Up challenge is played on a 12-foot by 12-foot square field and two alliances, made of two teams, compete in matches consisting of a 15-second autonomous period, where the robot runs a pre-programmed course with no driver input, followed by a 1:45 driver-controlled period.
The object of the game is to attain a high score by having the students’ robots throw the yellow discs on the playing surface into the elevated goal. Points can also be scored by turning rollers attached to the field of play.
“I’m incredibly impressed by the kids’ creations,” Harshman said. “These kids have come up with brilliant ways of shooting these discs out and getting the rollers going. Even minor details, like which type of wheels to use and how many flywheels to use to shoot the disc out.”
The Blue Bots also complete the Spin Up challenges in VEXU college-level competitions but with a greater level of detail and more advanced solutions to the game’s challenges.
“We play the same game at hopefully a much higher level. We take the challenge, and we break it down a little bit more. We look at some of the more advanced math and how we can produce our own parts to improve our robot,” Harshman said. “We 3D print our own parts. That’s the great thing with VEXU, we get to use whatever we want. We can add pneumatics in there and we can use a different programming language if we think we can improve upon it.”
While the competition isn’t quite like the TV show “BattleBots” with flamethrowers and saw blades attached to the robots, there can be contact between competitors on the field.
“There is a lot of contact. Intentional contact is kind of frowned upon, however, accidental contact is perfectly fine. It really depends on the team and the driver and how they choose to approach their certain problem,” Harshman said. “If they want to take a more defensive approach and kind of gather materials and hoard those until the end when they can get a clear shot off or if they want to shoot, shoot, shoot and then keep repeating that process.”
This summer, the Blue Bots will host a High School Robotics Camp from July 10-14, 2023, to continue to stoke interest in robotics.
“I think interest in robotics is really growing. The state competition has more and more teams every year. Here in Central Illinois, I’m proud to say that Millikin is a pioneer in this,” Harshman said. “I think as it becomes a bigger deal for colleges, putting this on a resume that you competed in the VEX competitions in high school is great. I think more high schools will try and give their kids the opportunity to come and compete.”
More information on the camp can be found at millikin.edu/blue-bots.