Southold Robotics set to take on the world as it wins two regional titles

Houston, we have a champion – times two.

For the fourth time in seven years, the Southold High School robotics club’s Team RICE 870 will compete in the world championships later this month. Team RICE (an acronym that stands for the team motto of respect, integrity, compassion, equity) also includes students from Greenport and last month won two Long Island regional competitions at Hofstra University’s David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Center. Team RICE, which had done the same in 2019, became the first Long Island student robotics team to earn successive double regional titles, according to the club’s advisors. Regional competitions were not held in 2020 or 2021 because of the pandemic coronavirus. The team also received the Autonomous Award in both competitions for how its robot operated under computer control.

“It was one of those weeks that couldn’t have gone any better,” said co-advisor Bob Gammon.

Team RICE went 16-0 in the first regional that included 39 teams, held March 22 and 23, and then went 18-0 in the second regional involving 41 teams, held March 25 and 26.

“It was like a dream,” said Southold sophomore Sofia Gillan, the club secretary who is a member of the build team. “Not only did we win, but to go undefeated, it’s very unheard of.”

The earlier regional title qualified Team RICE, winner of nine regional crowns, for the FIRST Championship to be held April 20-23 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. It will be the team’s seventh appearance in the world championships. FIRST, which stands for “for inspiration and recognition of science and technology,” is the student robotics world governing body.

As impressive as all of that is, Team RICE is ranked ninth in the world by FIRST, according to Mr. Gammon and fellow co-advisor Christine Schade, who both took over the team eight years ago.

“Being ninth in the world, it’s just so cool to say,” said Southold senior Matthew Schill, the club’s vice president and a member of the drive team.

The way the robotics competitions work is three teams, each with a robot, form an alliance to compete in games against other three-team alliances, with the aim being to shoot balls through an elevated hoop.

After the guidelines for this year’s competition were released in January, Team RICE spent about eight weeks building what the advisors called the most advanced robot the club has ever produced in its 20-year history. The robot, which weighs about 150 pounds, was first called “Bad Bunny” because it looked like a rabbit, but more recently it has been referred to as “Houdini” because it works like magic.

What makes this robot special is its swerve drive, which enables the robot’s four wheels to work independently for more fluid movement. “It definitely changed the game big time,” said Southold senior Tom Cardi, a club co-chair and operator for the drive team.

“The robot was a little more advanced than what we typically put out there,” Mr. Gammon said. “So, we got closer to going to the edge. When you do that, you have to manage your expectations so that you don’t get too close to the edge where you fall off. ”

The robot has a turret on it, so when it shoots a ball, it tracks the ball, allowing the turret to move in one direction while the chassis moves in another. “The strength of this robot is the maneuverability of it as well as the way the robot takes the balls off the floor,” Mr. Gammon said. “It’s really just more efficient than what the other teams are able to do right now.”

With risk, though, came reward. Team RICE will be facing about 450 teams from around the globe in Houston. “What’s fun is that they have no idea what’s coming, but they’re all very, very excited to travel to Houston, Texas,” said Ms. Schade.

The club’s 25 students, supported by about nine adult mentors, have been devoting about 30 to 40 hours a week to robotics. “You pretty much live at school,” said Mr. Cardi.

Southold’s robot had difficulties when the team competed in a Finger Lakes regional in Rochester March 11 and 12, finishing seventh among 37 teams with a 10-6 record and reaching the semifinals. But those issues were corrected for the events at Hofstra.

Greenport junior Declan Crowley, the club co-president, is the driver of the robot, a position that can be fun, but also pressure-packed. He said the controls are similar to a video game. “The swerve drive is kind of like Pac-Man, like the way you move it,” he said. “It’s like one of those joy sticks, so it came to me fast.”

What is the appeal of being involved with robotics?

“Being a part of something that’s so good, I guess,” Mr. Schill said. “Not many people can say they’ve done something like this throughout their lives.”

Members of Southold Team RICE 870 show off the awards and banners the team earned last month. (Credit: Christine Schade courtesy photo)

HOW TO HELP

The Southold High School robotics club has begun a fundraising campaign to help defray costs for Team RICE 870’s trip to Houston for the FIRST Championship April 20-23. Contributions are being accepted and the club is selling paper airplanes at $ 10 apiece that people may write messages on and have hung at the school. “It’s just a great way for people to send little messages and let the kids know that they’re thought of,” said club co-advisor Christine Schade. Checks may be mailed to: Southold Schools, PO Box 470, Southold, NY 11971, payable to Southold Robotics, Attn: Christine Schade. Contributions may also be made via Venmo @ Judi-Fouchet.

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