Higgs Bots, the three-time defending state robotics champion, is among the three Berkshire County high school teams headed to the Massachusetts First Tech Challenge robotics competition next week.
Higgs Bots and rookie squad Eagle Empire, both from Mount Everett Regional High School, along with Team Enginuity from Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, recently qualified for the state competition via the first-ever league championship event held earlier this month.
The Mount Everett squads paired up to capture the overall league title, while Team Enginuity advanced to states for the second consecutive year by winning a design award for its robot. In all, 24 Massachusetts high school teams are scheduled to compete Feb. 27 at Natick High School.
Comprised of mainly freshmen, Eagle Empire ranked first of the 17 teams following preliminary matches during the Feb. 7 league-level competition in Milton. While the more experienced Higgs Bots finished eighth, Eagle Empire felt it was a no-brainer picking the upperclassmen to form the inevitable winning alliance.
"[Higgs Bots] were good the whole day and we were choosing them no matter what [for the alliance]," said freshman Nikos Kasivant of Eagle Empire.
"If either of us encountered a problem, we would work together to fix the problem," added freshman Connor Blodgett.
Junior Jordan Chretien feels confident about Higgs Bots' chances heading into the states.
"I don't think there's pressure; mainly we have to work better as a team," he said. "We have as much potential as any other team."
First Tech Challenge events involve sophisticated robots performing singular tasks. This year, the tasks are modeled after rescue situations faced by mountain explorers around the globe. Among the ways the robots can score points on the 12-by-12-foot model playing surface is resetting rescue beacons, delivering rescue climbers to a shelter and retrieving debris from the playing field and placing it into various container "goals."
Randomly selected two-team alliances are formed, working together to score points within a two-minute, 30-second time frame. Each robot has two student operators: one drives the machine, the other controls the attachment performing the task. During the league championship round, the top two finishers from the preliminary rounds choose the team they feel best complements their skills.
The state, regional and world championships involve three-team, or triple alliances, during each event's playoffs to determine an overall winner.
The Higgs Bots put the Berkshires on the robotics map in April, making their first appearance at the international event in St. Louis. Team mentors Paul O'Brien and Chris Thompson expect a tougher road ahead for a return trip to the Midwest.
In just its second year, Team Enginuity from Lenox shared the 2015 state crown as part of a three-team alliance with the Higgs Bots and a team from Lincoln, all advancing to the regional event in Scranton, Pa. Only the Mount Everett team went on to attend worlds.
High school robotics is rapidly growing from the Berkshires to Boston thanks to the debut of formal leagues statewide in December.
Four local high schools formed five of the nine teams that made up the Western Massachusetts division that held three regular season events.
The set schedule of matches proved beneficial for the Berkshire teams, which also included ones from St. Joseph's Central High School in Pittsfield and McCann Technical School of North Adams, according to Chris Thompson, teacher/mentor for the Mount Everett teams.
"The good news was all the schools' robots were working and had something to show during the [league] championship," he said. "It was good to have more [schools], in general, with robotics programs."