By Jeff Keeling
It was January, and members of the Rat Rods robotics team knew they needed to build a robot that could make its way over some serious obstacles if they were going to fare well in regional competitions.
The team’s CEO – the students from David Crockett and Daniel Boone high schools are organized along the lines of a business – remembers the moment of inspiration that led to the Rat Rods earning the prize for “Creative Engineering” at the recent Smoky Mountain Regionals.
“There was a team member, I believe it was either Zach Hall or Ian Adams,” says Jacob Dowling, a Crockett senior who will attend Tennessee Tech next year, majoring in mechatronics. “They were like, ‘why couldn’t we do something like hot rods do – have the hydraulic suspension and everything.’”
Team members soon discovered hydraulics weren’t allowed, but they weren’t deterred. “Somebody said, ‘why not pneumatics?’” Dowling recalls. “So that’s how it happened.”
“It,” in this case, was a robot – “Excalibur” by name – fitted out with pneumatic shocks for each of its four main wheels. That design element won the team its engineering award a few weekends ago, and it also was instrumental in the team’s 15th place overall finish out of 54 in that competition.
Under the tutelage of Crockett teacher Guy McAmis – with help from several other faculty as well as Jeff Amburgey, a team member’s father and security analyst at Eastman Chemical Co. – the team members competed in the national First Robotics program starting in January. While they may have been having a lot of fun, McAmis says they were also developing the kind of skills that will serve them well for decades to come.
“The main thing I like is how much it is like the business world,” says McAmis, who spent years working as a machine designer and builder for Universal Tool and Engineering in Johnson City before becoming a teacher 11 years ago.
“I try to integrate the engineering process, how an engineer needs to become part of a team – a lot of integral things that maybe they don’t pick up somewhere else.”
McAmis has his own team, as well. In addition to Amburgey, he’s aided by teachers Mitchell Roop, Dylan Roberts and Daniel Maupin, who help with computer programming, media and machining, respectively.
First Robotics competitions aren’t cheap – entry in a team’s first competition costs $5,000 and includes some of the basic parts needed – so marketing, business planning and other elements are needed as well. Amburgey says it does a great job of mimicking the kind of collaboration that occurs at companies like Eastman.
“It opens up opportunities to all kinds of students, whether they’re involved in the hands on technical work or even if they’re involved in social media, managing a team or managing fundraising,” says Amburgey, who plans to help again next year, when Boone junior Zach Hall will take over as CEO for the graduating Dowling. “Any of the biggest projects we do utilize cross-functional teams, so people with different skill sets are really valuable to the outcome of any project.”
This year’s team began its robot work in earnest shortly after New Year’s. The first Saturday in January all competing teams nationally get the year’s ground rules, along with basic parts for their robots. They then have six weeks – during which they can spend up to $2,500 in additional capital – to build their robot.
After learning this year’s medieval theme, “Stronghold,” the Rat Rods finished “Excalibur” on Feb. 23. They headed to the Palmetto Regionals in South Carolina the next day, where they finished 26th out of more than 60 teams.
“These kids put in after school from about 3 until 7, 8 o’clock every night, Saturdays 8:30 until 4, 5 o’clock,” McAmis says.
They were building a robot that needed to be able to cross rugged terrain toward a castle, into which the robot had to shoot a basketball-sized foam ball. Teams, which actually work together in trios, were scored on how many times their remote-controlled robots successfully crossed obstacles and launched balls into the castles. Each round of competition pits six teams in the playing area, in their two groups of three.
Dowling, who enthusiastically describes Excalibur’s four driving wheels and the six others involved in grabbing and throwing the balls used during play, says he hopes his robot-making days are far from done. The mechatronics degree he’ll pursue at Tennessee Tech combines mechanical and electrical engineering, and is the pre-requisite for robotics.
“I’m more interested in the industrial side, using robots to enhance production,” Dowling says.
“I was the lead electrical man at the beginning in the club and I didn’t know anything about electrical, so it’s really taught me how to start with a design and see it manufactured and going through production to a finished product.”
As McAmis points out, though, student leaders must groom their successors – even though he’s jokingly threatened to fail his CEO, who has straight A’s this year, to keep him around. Dowling says the team will be fine under Hall.
“This whole thing has really been a teaching experience for me,” Dowling says. “I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been able to help a lot of people learn how to do the same stuff I’m doing – it’s just been a wonderful experience for me.”
Amburgey, the parent volunteer, says he’s happy to see students pursuing extracurricular activities that involve the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines, “have their achievements celebrated in the same way a person would if they were involved on a sports team.”
Some hiccups in the build process this year meant the final iteration of Excalibur was built, start to finish, in just three weeks, Dowling says. “When we got down to competition (in South Carolina), we drove it for the first time.”
Those are the types of challenges the team members will face when they enter “the real world,” where McAmis expects them to be doing quite well, thank you.
“One of my favorite sayings in class is, ‘I want you to get a good job and pay taxes so I can retire,’” McAmis says. “I want them to go out and do the best they can, and the more experiences like this they can get, the better off they are.”