Mt. Hope's 'Ladybots' Go for Robotic Glory


It turns out all those hours kids like to spend playing video games may not be rotting their minds after all. They may just be preparing for high school science.

A group of students at Mt. Hope High School hopes their skills with a video game controller translate into a championship in a national robotics competition this week. Of course, there's a bit more to it than video game talent — 3D design, engineering and construction skills are also required.

Amanda Crawley, Annelise Boylan and Jenna Longo have spent months planning for this weekend's challenge in Pennsylvania, where they will direct their robot through a series of challenges to score points against other teams from around the country.

"You have to have a lot of patience," Ms. Boylan said about the design and engineering phase. "You've got to be able to look at things in a different way; you need to be able to modify."

Beginning in September, the trio known as "The Ladybots" designed, built and learned to control "Big Bertha," a two-foot-tall collection of gears, levers, wheels and tank treads, complete with an infrared tracker for automated control.

After creating a 3D graphic design, the students used a robot starter kit and modified it to meet their design. They assembled all the gears, motors and wheels, and designed a block collection system using rotating tank treads with small plastic squares attached to funnel the blocks under Bertha's belly and into a small plastic bin attached to a moveable arm. The trio also gave Bertha extendable arms strong enough to hold its own weight and a spinning tool for turning a pulley similar to one belonging to R2D2 in Star Wars.

"You have to do a lot of sketches of the design you want," Ms. Boylan said of the complicated design process. "There's a lot of trial and error; a lot of breaking things apart and putting them back together again. It's fun."

The team will direct Big Bertha through a course designed by FIRST Robotics, which hosts the international competition. First, using nothing but  computer keyboard commands sent to the infrared sensor, Ms. Crawley must direct the bot to specific points on the course, and collect plastic blocks scattered around the floor to dump in designated bins with different point values.

"Our biggest concern is getting the IR to work," Ms Crawley said after missing the bin a few times during practice last week, requiring her to tweak her computer code until Bertha accurately dumped her payload in the proper bin. "You have to make adjustments. There's a lot of trial and error."

Then, using a Sony Playstation controller and competing against another team's bot, the trio must control Bertha to collect and deposit more plastic blocks, being sure to distribute them among the containers to balance the pendulum they hang on. The team then can choose to have Bertha raise a flag on a pulley or — even more impressive — have Big Bertha do a bit of a workout by extending her arms and doing a pull-up on the course pendulum.

After having won at the Rhode Island championship last month, the trio is heading to Bethlehem, Penn., with teacher Ryan Garrity for this weekend's regional competition. If the Ladybots and Bertha can complete the tasks properly and outscore their opponents, their full year of work will culminate at the FIRST World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri April 24-25.

"It's a lot of fun," Ms. Longo said. "I like to design and see it come to life. To put it on paper and then see it come to life is pretty awesome."

The Ladybots are a regional team of female robot designers in grades 6-12. For more information or to join, visit the team's Facebook page.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.