Some of Hamilton’s brightest student minds in science and technology will put their robot "Chuck" against the best in the world later this month in St. Louis, Mo.

St. Mary’s High School Makeshift Robotics team — founded in 2011 and currently comprised of 32 students from Grades 9 through 12 — took top prize at the recent regional championships in New York City, qualifying them for the FIRST Robotics World Championships.

Chuck is built of mostly-aluminum parts and powered by a 12-volt battery. The robot also has a catapult arm able to throw a ball upward of three metres in distance, and 2.1 metres in the air.

“It’s really fun to do because there’s no set shape and you’re literally starting from nothing and building from there, a robot,” said team captain and Grade 12 student Michael Meier, noting that each team had a budget of $3,000, but received parts donations from local companies.

The design and build took six weeks to complete as student gathered each night, often for upward of six hours after classes let out, to finish ahead of the competition deadline.

At the world championships, the St. Mary’s team and Chuck will compete against 400 teams from 12 other countries as far away as the Middle East.

‘Leaders of tomorrow’

Matthew Alderson, the team’s mentor and engineering manager at RMT Robotics, said the students are learning life as well as technical skills that will make them successful.

“These are the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “They’re the ones that are going to shape the world.”

FIRST robotics

Members of the St. Mary's makeshift robotics team with robot 'Chuck' after claiming top prize at the FIRST Regionals in New York City. (Matthew Alderson, supplied)

The upcoming competition combines sport and technology as robots face-off in a game called aerial assist — a full-contact match in which a team of robots pass and shoot balls through goals to score points.

“Each year the FIRST program makes a new game from scratch, like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” said Sarah Alderson, one St. Mary’s team leads.

The St. Mary’s team designed a system that allows Chuck to intake a ball using compressed air and project it using the catapult. The drive base, a new challenge for the students, also has a shifting gearbox to give their robot a high torque speed for getting around the field.

“Our robot I’ve noticed (from going to competitions) is very reliant and robust,” Meier said.

Alderson added that because there is often less than 10 minutes between matches, they’ve used engineering principles to keep Chuck’s design as “simple but versatile as possible.”

“If something fails during a match you want only a few options to choose from in what went wrong,” she said. “Having that simple robot it’s easy to fix and troubleshoot quickly.”

Community outreach

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of Segway. 

The international non-profit organization brings together 58,000 of the brightest young minds from around the world in science, technology and engineering.

But while the competitors want to win, FIRST also emphasizes that teams use what’s known as “gracious professionalism.”

“You want to compete with them when they’re at their best,” Alderson said. “So you will go over and give them your spare parts and help them fix their robot, help them with their programming, help them with everything.”

Outside of the classroom the St. Mary’s robotics team is involved in giving back to the community, including visits to feeder schools where they mentor younger students interested in technology.

“I’ve gained almost every single leadership skill that I have from this,” said Meier, who will attend McMaster University for engineering this fall but hopes to help out with next year’s team.

“The experience with FIRST has taught me how to act in a professional manner with other people and also help them out along the way — it’s not trying to crush your competitor but be what they are but better.”