On an afternoon in late March, just as the remnants of cold weather from winter are giving way to the warmer temperatures of spring, high school seniors Keimmie Booth and Indya Dodson remain inside working with metal plates, screws and a Dremel electric hand tool.
They’re in the robotics laboratory on the bottom floor of all-girls Western High School on Falls Road. Here, surrounded by pneumatic pumps, wheels, drive shafts and rack and pinion gears and a chalkboard scribbled on with mathematical equations, the two 17-year-olds are putting the finishing touches on a robot built by the school’s robotics team, the RoboDoves. Dodson stands at a table in the middle of the room screwing together two metal plates. Booth, in a red, Western High hoodie that reads “Girls Rock,” sits at a table on the other end of the room penciling notes into a composition book.
In three weeks, they’ll travel with the six other members of the RoboDoves to Anaheim, Calif., where they’ll use that robot to compete against some 400 teams from across the globe. For the fifth time in as many years, the RoboDoves are competing at the VEX Robotics World Championship.
On Wednesday the RoboDoves arrived in California to square off against teams from Puerto Rico, China, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the U.S. in “Sack Attack.” It’s this year’s particular VEX robotics league challenge, whereby two- or three-person student-teams steer robots in an enclosed square field and score points by lifting bean bags into troughs suspended 18 and 30 inches off the ground.
Competitive robotics is something of a phenomenon in the Baltimore region, akin to the excitement of other, more traditional high school sports. Five teams from Baltimore are competing, including the RoboDoves and two teams from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western’s immediate neighbors on Falls Road.
Since officially forming in 2008, the RoboDoves team, which also goes by its VEX designation 2528W, has been a mainstay in the realm of competitive robotics.
“In Baltimore city, we are a force,” said Ron Karpinski, a retired engineer and former Sparrows Point worker who serves as the RoboDoves’ technical mentor.
A shelf inside the RoboDoves’ lab at Western holds more than a handful of the awards the team has won over the last five years, including a Create Award won at a previous world championship, signifying that a robot built in Baltimore was deemed the best-built bot in the world.
Also on that shelf: the Excellence Award the RoboDoves took home in December at the VEXmas Classic. As Technically Baltimore reported at the time, Booth and Dodson commanded the robot that earned the RoboDoves its world championship qualifying spot.
Indya Dodson and Keimmie Booth of the RoboDoves at December’s VEXmas Classic:
‘You Can Create Anything’
Harvey Harvester is the name of the robot the RoboDoves are presently competing with at the VEX World Championship. But it’s the third iteration of a robot Dodson and Booth have been working on since last summer.
After a local competition in November, Dodson “realized there were better teams than us.”
“We knew that it wouldn’t be as good as we would like it to be to be competitive in the world competition,” she told Technically Baltimore in March.
The robot Dodson and Booth used at the December competition to qualify for the world championship operated more like a forklift, scooping up and dumping, at most, three bean bags at a time into the troughs used for Sack Attack. Harvey, the new bot, employs a conveyer belt in front that pulls bean bags into a fiberglass scoop, which then dumps as many as 10 sacks backwards into the troughs. They built this robot in two weeks, and were just completing it in early April with the addition of a pneumatic pump to push out any bean bags stuck in the scoop.
What’s more, the robot is programmed to operate automatically for the first 15 seconds of the two-minute-long match. This is standard for VEX Sack Attack matches: the first 15 seconds is the “autonomous” portion, where robots travel around the field picking up bean bags without the aid of a student-driver.
At the VEX World Championship, Booth and fellow RoboDove senior Imani Johnson are serving as the drive team, for a robot Booth said “is the best … I’ve seen of anybody else’s.”
For Dodson, who joined the RoboDoves team her sophomore year, the chance to design — and redesign — these miniature machines is a major appeal of participating in robotics.
“I like working with my hands,” she said. “I love power tools, love using the saw, the Dremel. “There are certain limitations but, honestly, you can create anything you want to.”
Keimmie Booth and Ron Karpinski demonstrate how Harvey Harvester works:
The Chance to Compete
Still, despite the RoboDoves’ dominance in Baltimore city, competing on a world stage is challenging.
The nearly 400 high school teams at the VEX World Championship are broken up into three divisions, and just eight teams from each division will compete in a divisional final. The teams that win there go on to the “World Round.” Booth estimates that the highest place the RoboDoves have ever achieved at the world championship is 84.
As of Thursday, the RoboDoves were actively in the running for the Create Award, but their matches “have not been good at all,” Booth said by e-mail. “We had a lot of connection problems with the field,” which ended up scuttling Harvey Harvester’s ability to collect bean bags during the 15 seconds of autonomous play.
World championship play continues into next week, however, and Booth said the RoboDoves, after making some adjustments Thursday after play ended, will be ready to compete today and into next week.
Besides, for Booth — who discovered robotics her sophomore year, after being recruited to Western High School to play basketball — just participating is the real reason for being a RoboDove.
“I love playing basketball, but I wouldn’t want to spend every day doing something like that,” she said. “Robotics is something that’s useful. It’s taking over, and I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to miss out on it.”
This is part one of a Technically Baltimore series on the RoboDoves.
- Read part two, a recap of the RoboDoves’ results at the VEX World Championship.
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