By Joe Earle

Cross Keys High robot team captain Stephen Hill, at left, and teacher Eric Hill with Suzy, the robot.

They didn’t really get started until January. That meant Cross Keys new robot-building team didn’t have a lot of time to waste as they tried to figure things out.

“This is the school’s first year [in the competition], the teacher’s first year, the students’ first year,” said Eric Hill, who teaches engineering fundamentals at Cross Keys High School and who coached the team. “Everybody’s new.”

Some preliminary work was done in the fall, but the mainstays of the Cross Keys team that competed in the Vex robot challenge really came together with the start of the second semester, Hill said. They worked after school and Saturday. They designed, built and tested several robots, changing things as they went along.

At one early competition, team captain Stephen Williams was so unhappy with the performance of the school’s robot that he redesigned and rebuilt it mid-match. The robot had been playing offense. He decided to switch gears, so to speak, and play defense. After all, if the other guys couldn’t score, maybe Cross Keys had a better shot at winning.

“We took it apart,” he said in a soft-spoken, unassuming way. “We stripped it. Basically, we put a little wall on it to block everybody.”

When it comes to robot competitions, sometimes it’s about strategy.

This year, the Cross Keys robot team has learned a thing or two about how to compete in the world of high school robot combat. And what they’ve learned appears to be paying off.

At the World competition in Texas in April, where the Cross Keys team competed with robots built by teams from across the U.S. and from places such as Singapore, New Zealand and Mexico, Cross Keys finished 25th out of the 100 teams in its division, Hill said. At one point during the competition, the Cross Keys team, composed of Williams, Aaron Marks, Thurshaun Alston and Jovolonie Fung-Chung, was ranked as high as 14th, Hill said.

Even better than that, Williams said, they finished well ahead of the team from Forsyth County that topped them in the final round of the state competition.

“They were kind of our rivals,” Williams said. “But we beat them at World.”

And were they proud of that? “Yeah,” Williams said with a grin.

Next, Williams said, they want to take part in a national competition this summer to see if they can put what they learned in Texas to use to move up in the rankings.

The competitions require the students to design and build a robot that can perform a specified task. In the competitions this year, that task was to move a bunch of plastic balls from one side of a wall to the other. Some of the balls were shaped like small soccer balls. Others were small footballs. Some of the balls were placed on the wall separating the two sides of the playing field while others were scattered around the field. During the competition, teams were assigned to work as partners in completing the task. Each robot ran by itself for 30 seconds and then was run by a driver using a radio controller similar to ones use to guide model airplanes.

Williams joined the team after he saw some of the other boys in Hill’s class fooling around with the parts for building robots. He was intrigued, so he hung around after school and got hooked on the project.

“I’m a hands-on person,” he said. “And I’m kind of competitive.”

Kind of competitive? “Very competitive,” he admitted.

Besides, he said with a grin, “you get to use power tools.”

Williams, a senior who said he’s headed to Southern Polytechnic Institute for college, grew deeply involved in the project. He ended up designing two of the three robots the team built as it experimented with different types. After the first match, Williams was so unhappy with the robot that he took it home with him and returned the next day with a new one, Hill said. Williams had redesigned and rebuilt the robot overnight, the teacher said. “He took it home and came back the next day and everything was done over again,” Hill said.

The team’s final design used a large scoop to put up the balls and dump them over the wall, Williams said. They named the robot “Suzy,” for no apparent reason. They even tried to come up with an acronym to explain the name, but nobody could, so the robot remained simply Suzy, Williams said.

Now Williams keeps film clips of Suzy at work in his phone. And he’s already rethinking Suzy’s design. He may just radically redo the robot for the next competition, he said, and change it from the scooper-dumper design to one based on a vacuum cleaner.

And the Cross Keys team already is looking to next year. They have a new name: “Get Sum Robotics.” And the new challenge is out for the next round of competitions. Next year’s robot needs to climb a three-foot ladder.