Robots take center stage at Aviano tech challenge

By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2017

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — One of the main tenets of the FIRST Tech Challenge is “gracious professionalism.”

Competitors are urged to push themselves and their robots to do their best while treating the competition with respect and doing a little mentoring along the way.

International teams from Netherlands and Germany played that role well Saturday, showing eight teams from Department of Defense Education Activity schools that they’ve got some work to do if they want to compete against the best in the world.

Return of the Screws, a lime green bedecked quintet from the The Hague suburb of Voorburg, triumphed on the court, winning the Aviano Invitational robotics tournament by helming a two-team alliance that defeated another headed by What the Frog from Stuttgart, Germany.

What the Frog was later honored with the Inspire Award, granted to the team that demonstrated not only fine play on the 12-square foot court but also set a high standard for its interaction with other competitors and excellence in its engineer log documenting the six months it’s worked on its project.

As a result, the two teams advance to the world championships in April in St. Louis.

Of the 16 teams that competed — half of them DODEA — all four that qualified for the semifinals were international schools.

The Vulcans from Vicenza, in their first year of competition, finished fifth in the qualification rounds and then reached the semifinals when two higher-ranking Dutch teams decided to combine their efforts onto one alliance.

Superfluou’s A’postrophe’s from Ramstein was sixth and selected by What the Frog to join its alliance and so competed in the finals as the junior partner.

Robotica Santi, from Aviano, finished near the bottom of the pack in qualifying in 13th but was also selected to compete in the semifinals. Teamed with E.A.G. from Germany, the Aviano team pushed Return of the Screws to the limit by twice getting its robot to lift a large ball and place it in the center goal — something they failed to do repeatedly in qualifying. Aviano was the only DODEA team to even attempt the high-scoring maneuver, though, and the only other team besides the two that qualified for the nationals to achieve it.

Teams competed in six Velocity Vortex matches during qualification. Each match consisted of four teams randomly paired in Red and Blue alliances directing robots they’ve built since the contest mission was announced in September. Each match began with a 30-second autonomous period where robots performed pre-programmed commands, followed by two minutes of driver control.

Points were awarded for a variety of tasks, including tossing large Whiffle-like balls into the center goals, parking on certain spots on the court, and lifting the large balls that rolled around the court and made maneuvering the robots a bit more difficult.

John Mol, a retired Ramstein teacher who mentors Superfluou’s A’postrophe’s, said the event is all about learning — and maybe pushing students toward a career in math or the sciences.

“We would like this to be something that (DODEA) plans for and budgets for,” he said. “There are a few students out here who are involved with sports, but it’s something that also reaches a niche of students who aren’t otherwise involved in extra-curricular activities.”

Mol said not only had his team learned some lessons at the competition, but thanks to exchanges with What the Frog earlier this year, it was already practicing them at the tournament.

“They showed us how to shoot,” he said. “It’s not stealing ideas out here. It’s sharing them.”


Team members from Aviano's Robotica Santi - Aiden Capps, Christopher Hunt and Julia Markel - react as their robot places a cap ball in the goal on Saturday, March 3, 2017, at the Aviano Invitational FIRST Tech Challenge.