NORMAN — The crowd was tense and restless as they waited for the final match to begin. They ignored the chairs and bleachers surrounding the challenge area, instead crowding in to press as close as possible to the waist-high barrier that held them back.
Surrounded by the sea of eager onlookers, two gleaming metal machines waited for the timer to start. Suddenly, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” filled the air.
The final round of the International Botball Tournament, a double-elimination round between Norman Advanced Robotics and the Dead Robot Society, had begun.
Botball is a robotics competition for middle school and high school students. Teams from 28 states and four different countries spend months building and programming autonomous robots which can perform tasks without being actively controlled. They document their progress as they work, preparing educational, promotional or instructional websites and videos. It’s hard work, but the students seem delighted to do it.
“We love the robots and we love each other,” said Laura Johnston, a member of the Dead Robot Society.
Once they’ve finished their bots, students gather for regional conferences, pitting their mechanical creations against each other. The robots are placed in miniature obstacle courses, where they must earn points by manipulating a variety of objects.
For example, a bot might scoop up brightly colored pom-poms from the floor. Moving green pom-poms into a designated area will earn the bot’s team points, but accidentally including the orange pom-poms mixed in will detract points.
Teams that make it through their regional tournament head for internationals, hosted this year in the Embassy Suites Conference Center in Norman.
The atmosphere buzzes with tension and focus as students race back and forth from their groups’ tables to the five challenge centers, discussing strategy and making last-minute adjustments to a dazzling variety of whirring, wheeling machines.
Beginning rounds, called seeded rounds, consist of one robot navigating the challenge unopposed. After each team has played three of these rounds, they begin double-elimination rounds.
Charlie Banes, part of the three-man Hampton High School team along with Ian Waldschmidt and Braden Duderstudt, said double elimination is his favorite part.
“Normally you have one robot in the challenge,” he said. “In the double-elimination rounds, you have your robot and another team’s against each other.”
The rounds certainly went well for the Hampton boys, who came in fourth overall and won a special Judge’s Choice Award.
“At our regional tournament we made zero, zero and another zero,” Banes said. “Here, we haven’t made any zeroes.”
Participants may travel from far and wide to take part, but a Normanite scanning the program would find several familiar names. Whittier Middle and Alcott Middle school attended, as did the TechMakers of Oklahoma City and Southwest Covenant School from Yukon.
The name that carried the day, however, was Norman Advanced Robotics. The team carried a perfect record into the final match of the double-elimination portion Wednesday. The Dead Robot Society of Herndon, Va., had taken one defeat but had a reputation as a team to watch.
The crowd was still and breathless as the match started, but the air quickly filled with exclamations, groans and cheers as Norman’s bot lifted two plastic booster sections and transferred them to a section of pipe, earning 40 points. The Society’s bot attempted the same maneuver but ultimately failed as it caught a pole at a confusing angle and couldn’t maneuver away.
The Norman bot reached for another set of booster sections but dropped them both before it reached the pipe. Fans tensed at the mistake, but with the Society’s bot still bumping against the pole, time ran out.
Norman Advanced Robotics won the double-elimination portion of the event and came out second overall in the tournament and third in the seeding round. The team was pleased with the ranking, but each member hastened to assure congratulaters that each one of them couldn’t have done it without their teammates.
“We were able to come together with a lot of different ideas,” Alex Spens said, adding that he thought working together was the most important part of the team’s efforts.
Norman Advanced Robotics is a team-up of two high schools, Norman High and Norman North. The Norman team began competing in 2000 and widened to include Norman North students in 2010. Now the team consists of 13 members and two robots, “Magellan” and “Goddard.”
Team member Druv Khanna said they all worked together to create a winning plan and stay humble when it worked.
“Sportsmanship is pretty important,” he said, “and also strategy. We wouldn’t be able to get as far as we have without having an effective strategy.”
The Dead Robot Society was happy to be on the receiving end of some of that attitude.
“These were the most dramatic last five rounds ever,” team captain Lauren Sibley said. “The acts of sportsmanship were amazing. I admire the other teams so much.”
High spirits seemed to abound as the tournament ended. Officials opened the student area and teams carefully explained the intricacies of building, programming and strategy to curious onlookers.
“(It’s) inspiring,” said Steve Goodgame, executive director of the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics. “If you are worried about the future, come down here and look at these kids.”