Robotics team goes national with idea

The Columbia team heads for the national Botball Tournament.
Sunday, July 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:07 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It sits right off the entryway of the Dunwoody residence — a 4-by-8 table covered with yellow and blue plastic cups, foam balls and robots made of LEGOs and thousands of dollars of electronic components. The Columbia Robotics Team runs trials, watching the robots pick up foam balls and knock over cups.

“We’re just going to keep making changes and minor adjustments,” said Mark Dunwoody, head coach. “We may have these things completely redone by the end of the night.”

The team had its final get-together Friday night to finish tweaking the creations for the national Botball Tournament in San Jose, Calif., Monday through Wednesday. After winning the regional competition in March, the seven team members, ages 14 to 16, have spent their summer perfecting the robots.

The team is not new to the national Botball competition, in which robots must perform certain tasks within a specified time. Some team members have been a part of the scene since the team was created about three years ago. They won the national tournament their first year.

“The year we won, we thought it was just luck. Last year we thought we really did have a good robot, but it didn’t work out,” Dunwoody said. “This year, you never know.”

The team began competing when MU engineering professor Marjorie Skubic approached members with the idea of Botball.

Many of the ideas came from Dunwoody’s 16-year-old son Craig. He, Lincoln and teammates Elliot Branson, Josh Kennedy, Josh Lory, Tyler Neff and Chris Thomas built each robot for a specific task in the competition.

“We get started with some kind of idea,” said Craig Dunwoody. “But we never know how it will end up.”

The robots are designed to push blue cups onto the opponent’s side, sweep yellow cups back on their side and pick up 4-inch orange foam balls and place them in a basket — all ways to earn points in the competition. For the double elimination rounds, the team even has a robot to drive down the table and pin up opponents.

The robot that picks up the foam balls has the most sophisticated technology — microelectronics, servos, infrared and light sensors. As a result, the team is concerned about transporting the robots by airplane.

“The simple robots we’re going to put in baggage, but we’re going to talk to security to try to carry on the other one,” Mark Dunwoody said.

The tournament starts Monday. The robots — which are programmed ahead of time — must be ready to perform their tasks.

Mark Dunwoody is optimistic about their chances of winning. “These are the most sophisticated robots they’ve ever had and I’ve ever seen,” he said. “These kids have a real vested interest in it.”

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