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Battle of brains and robotic brawn

 Valencia High's team TiGears drivers Matthew Barlune, left, 13, and Evan Coughran, 15, take control of their robots during the Fall Classic robotics competition at Valencia High School in Placentia on Saturday.

TiGears robotic creations

Since the program was started in 2012, TiGears has created two robots for the annual FIRST Robotics Competitions. The club also builds a few back-up and prototype robots, but these remained unnamed and are occasionally mined for parts during the build season.


Ariel was hand-built to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition Aerial Assist event. The robot uses a spring-powered catapult to launch balls into rectangular slots high above the competition floor.

Ariel can travel at speeds of up to 30 mph and quickly darts between its competitors using nimble, custom-built wheels. A car window motor cocks the powerful catapult.


Asimov was the TiGears' first competition entry. While the chassis looks similar to Ariel, this robot is designed to fling Frisbee discs into goal slots above the playing field.

The TiGears beat more than 30 highly experienced robotics programs in 2012 using Asimov. Now, the robot has been retrofitted to assist Ariel in retrieving balls during the Aerial Assist competition.

Ariel might as well be family for the Valencia High School TiGears Robotics Club.

After hundreds of hours designing, building and programming the nimble robot from scratch, club members have developed a strong bond with Ariel. Cannibalizing her for parts on future projects would be a last resort, said engineering consultant and TiGears mentor Andy Crick.

“They have a hard time taking it apart, and they hate to see it broken,” Crick said. “They never call it ‘it,’ they always call it by its name.”

The 3-foot-wide by 4-foot-tall rectangular bot is a sleek combination of motors, cams, springs and engines. Ariel can travel at a top speed of 30 mph, launch yoga balls high into the air and even operate autonomously using mounted cameras and slick student-programmed code.

Ariel zoomed across the Valencia High School gym last weekend at the school’s Fall Classic robotics competition. More than 35 middle and high school teams from throughout Southern California attended the event to square off against rivals in bouts of fierce and frantic robotic mayhem. About 500 spectators cheered from packed bleachers, Crick said.

Ariel was designed to compete in Aerial Assist, a game in which six robots from different teams compete to pick up and launch yoga balls into goal slots above the field.

The Valencia club finished 16th out of 26 high school teams in the Fall Classic. Even though Ariel operated flawlessly, TiGears drivers struggled to maintain dominance on the crowded field, Crick said.

Valencia has been attending FIRST Robotics Competitions for two years. The TiGears has its sights set on becoming Orange County’s high school robotics powerhouse. The club has received more than $100,000 in sponsorships from companies such as Boeing and Foxconn. This year, the school used a $50,000 grant to purchase an industrial water jet machine.

There are even plans to incorporate robotics into the curriculum of the school’s advanced Val Tech program.

“Our Val Tech program has existed for over a decade now,” Principal Rick Lopez said. “Throughout that time we’ve had four pathways for students to be able to specialize in various aspects of technology. And with our robotics program, we are very close to establishing a fifth pathway, and that would be in the area of robotics.”

Peter Neumann, 16, a Valencia High School junior, joined TiGears when the club was started in 2012. He sometimes stays after school late into the evening tinkering with his teammates. More than 50 students, including a handful of Kraemer Middle School students, are now involved in the program.

Neumann said the club will give him an edge as he applies to colleges and internships. He hopes to eventually become a computer engineer.

“It’s real-world experience,” he said. “Businesses and companies recognize FIRST as a good source of students that know at least somewhat of what they are doing, so I think it’ll probably give me a better chance to do well in the future.”

Neumann said competition is fun, but he always worries about how the robot will perform on the field.

“It feels good that it actually works and it performs the job that you designed it to do,” Neumann said.

This year, he was responsible for helping teammates design and assemble Ariel.

“It’s crazy and hectic, and yet it’s still organized,” Neumann said. “Everyone is loud, everyone is cheering, everyone is having a good time, but we’re all still focused on our jobs, at what we’ve volunteered to do.”

Learning to use advanced design software and creating robot parts with heavy machinery are essential program skills. But students must also learn how to work under pressure and tackle challenges as a team.

Crick said FIRST Robotics competitions are designed to teach students to deal with stress and think on the fly.

“There’s actually an element of keeping pressure on the kids deliberately,” Crick said. “If you wind up in the space program or something, you’re in a pressure job. College is pressure, too, especially for engineers.”

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