NEW LOWELL — Obi Page hunkers over a nest of exposed circuitry, carefully tying together wires before replacing the Plexiglas cover to the bottom of the robot.
The machine is up-righted, and loaded with an exercise ball, as Cybergnomes team captain Judah Page manipulates a joystick plugged into a laptop communicating with the robot via wireless, the sound of suddenly-released air is emitted from the machine as it fires the ball against a garage door at the rear of JT’s Snowmobile Repair.
“I’ve always been fascinated with robots,” said Page. “I remember in Grade 1 writing that I’d like to be an electrical engineer.”
The Cybergnomes’ robot doesn’t so much resemble a robot as it does a heavy-duty pushcart, equipped with snowmobile springs, an on-board air compressor to power the pneumatics, and a mass of circuitry that makes up the machine’s brain.
In Grade 8, Page got involved with his elementary school’s FIRST Lego League club. Lego League is designed to introduce students to engineering concepts using the company’s Mindstorms product line.
He was at a competition and had a chance to see a robotic team competition.
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” said the Grade 12 Stayner Collegiate Institute student. “You got to hang out with like-minded people… I just wanted to learn more.”
When he hit high school, Page joined the Cybergnomes. Two years later, his younger brother, Obi, became part of the club.
The older Page now has his eye on a career in chemical engineering.
“Robotics has really helped me understand processes and analysis,” he said.
The club, once out of Stayner Collegiate, is now a community-based team supported by a number of local businesses across Clearview Township. The team membership is broad-based; while the core of the team attends SCI, there are also students from Penetanguishene Secondary School, Barrie North, and a high school in Toronto.
The team was in Michigan this past weekend, and will be headed to Toronto this coming weekend as they take part in a couple of exhibition competitions. At this point in the year, it’s about building on and practicing the team’s skills in construction, programming, and fundraising.
These will be the final competitions for this particular robot, as the team retires it and prepares for the next build. The hope is to preserve this one, as past robots have been scavenged in order to provide parts for the next build.
“Here’s our robot from two years ago,” said build team leader Patrick Belford with a laugh, holding up a two-foot-long aluminum bar.
This year’s robot made it all the way to the semi-finals of the FIRST championships this past spring in St. Louis, Missouri.
Team mentor Gary Page says it costs about $75,000 annually to operate the team, which includes paying competition fees, parts and equipment, travel, and accommodation.
The learning aspect of building the robot is unrivalled, he noted, as the students get an education in engineering, programming, machining, welding, problem solving, and fundraising.
“It’s a lot of hard work, and long hours on the lathe,” said Belford, who wants to move on to a trades school after graduation, or signing on as an apprentice for welding or machining.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Canada will provide specifications on Jan. 2, and the team will have six weeks to design and build their next robot.
“We just pull down the whiteboard and start mapping out our strategy,” said Belford.
Once it’s mapped out on the board, the team starts building prototypes out of wood before moving on to the real thing.
The sponsors have been a big help, as have the mentors. That includes a past member of the Cybergnomes, Chris Wyant, who is now living in San Jose, California and working as a programmer for Amazon.com.
“He just wanted to give back,” said Gary Page.
To support the team, go to their website and click on the ‘fundraising’ tab. You can also call JT’s Snowmobile Repair at 705-424-1691.
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