FAIRBANKS -- A crowd of hundreds in the university bleachers at Patty Center gym sent up a shout as Robot #4539 made its endgame move. In the middle of the 12-by-12 foot diamond, surrounded by three other robots and two bowling balls, with a hundred racquetballs scattered around its wheels, the metal and plastic machine about the size of a carry-on bag delicately balanced a crate on its top deck, about a foot off the floor, then deftly scooped up a racquetball and popped it into the crate.
As the last seconds of the semi-final match ran down it initiated an elevator sequence, its short sides turning into a towering scissors jack, like something out of "Transformers."
When the buzzer sounded, the crate swayed more than 8 feet above the ground, enough to give victory to the South Anchorage Sourdoughs and the Red Team.
The Sourdoughs advanced to the finals in the 2012 FIRST Tech Challenge Statewide Robotics Championship at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, earning as spot as one of four teams that will represent Alaska in National competition in St. Louis next month.
More than 200 students from around Alaska took part in the battle of the bots on Saturday. They came from Anchorage, Juneau, Kwethluk and Mekoryuk. They took the field with suitably techy names like Frostbyte (Wasilla), Sprocketoids (Skagway), Titanium Braves (Mt. Edgecumbe), Schrodinger's Hat (Fairbanks), and Team Caffeine and Nerdettes (both East Anchorage High).
Starting last September, each of the 52 teams in the event received identical boxes of parts. They were instructed to design and built a remote-control machine that would score points in various ways: By corralling racquetballs into goal areas, putting them into crates, stacking the crates and raising them up, pushing a bowling ball up a ramp and parking in a designated spot.
Simultaneous matches took place in four diamonds set up in front of a curtain. Behind the curtain were tables where teams tweaked or repaired their creations. In front, striped-shirt referees kept score. Pit crews scrambled to reset the field after each bout. Eager contestants waited for their turns, cradling their geared-up gizmos like a prized Persian at a cat show.
Each diamond held 12 crates stacked in pairs, four stacks topped by tubes containing racquetballs, 12 of which had magnetic chips worth extra points, and two bowling balls.
The three-minute matches opened with a 30-second "autonomous" period in which the robots ran independently of the humans, knocking over crates, sending balls bounding around the rink, sometimes scoring with the bowling balls or managing to get themselves re-parked.
Then the students grabbed control pads and, with flying thumbs, took direct command of the devices. They kept one eye on their entry, the other on their competitors -- and not just in an attempt to beat them. The teams engaged in an ongoing exchange of ideas and helpfulness.
That's because, in this contest, your opponent in one match might well be your ally later on. Top ranked teams were allowed to pick their partners for the final rounds. The focus on mutual assistance led announcer Dave Patterson to describe the contest as "co-omperatition."
The national FIRST organization (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. In addition to promoting the study of science, the group makes scholarships available to participants.
Many schools fielded more than one four-person team. Lathrop High School in Fairbanks had 16 teams in the event. Last year a Lathrop team, ICY, was in the alliance that came within two points of winning the national championship.
Another Lathrop team, Porhtal, will be going to the nationals this year by virtue of having won first prize at the Idaho State Championship. They'll be joined by three other top teams from the Alaska competition: Sourdoughs, South Anchorage High School (1st); Team Caffeine, East Anchorage High School (2nd); Perpetual Motion, Lathrop High School (Winning Alliance 1st Pick).
More information about the competition is at fllalaska.com/home.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.