Alexandre-Taché robo-squad seeks to sting competition

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St. Albert francophone students will raid the lost ark later this week when their android archaeologist faces off against Alberta’s best ‘bots in a provincial competition.

Six École Alexandre-Taché students are hammering and coding away this week as they work to finish a cube-hauling robot in time for the 2018 FIRST Tech Challenge Alberta Championship next weekend.

It’s the first time the team, known as Les Scorpions, has competed in the event, said team coach Sébastien L’Abbé.

“It’s a big challenge for them. It makes them think outside the box.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization that aims to encourage youths to take an interest in science, technology, math and engineering, said Philippe Manseau, organizer of the Alberta championship.

FIRST teams compete to build robots that can complete various challenges, sometimes with scholarships on the line, Manseau said. Those robots often take months to build and can cost thousands of dollars. The tournaments gives students a chance to put what they learn in school into practice, as the robots require design, engineering, math, shop, and science skills to build.

Manseau said this year’s FIRST Tech Challenge has an Indiana Jones theme and involves 33 teams. Some 250 students from across Alberta will have two minutes and 30 seconds in which to use their robots to stack cube-like glyphs in a crypto-box (a shelf), manipulate coloured jewels, and retrieve ancient idols for points. The robots will have to act autonomously for the first 30 seconds, after which they will be remote controlled.

Teams in this year’s event will compete in two-on-two matches in a single-elimination tournament, Manseau said. Winners will get trophies, with the top two teams and individuals moving onto the global FIRST Tech tournament later this year.

Robo-scorpion?

Les Scorpions have built a low, flat, forklift-like machine able to grab and stack up to two glyphs at once for the contest.

“It was all their imagination,” L’Abbé said of the design, and the students had to learn how to build, and program it themselves.

As it’s their first year, the team has decided to field a relatively basic model that focuses on the point-heavy glyph-stacking event instead of one that tries to do everything, L’Abbé said.

The team has worked on this project for about three hours a week since September, said squad member Samuel Fleury, who joined it due to his plans to get into engineering.

“We’re pretty much at our final stage,” he said, although they still hope to build and program a colour-detecting arm for the jewel challenge.

Squad member Sébastien Marleau said the robot was built using some parts from a kit and some they cut and 3D-printed on their own. It doesn’t have any weapons on it, as those aren’t allowed in the contest.

Fleury said it’s been a lot of fun building the robot, as they’ve learned something new every time they’ve worked on it.

Marleau said he had to learn how to program and design in 3D as part of the project, and recently had to rewrite most of the robot’s code after school officials unintentionally deleted it.

Fleury said that their biggest challenge would likely be efficiency. Every second will count, and they’ll have to be perfectly lined up to grab the glyph blocks.

The team is up against some experienced competitors, but Fleury hoped that they’d make the semi-finals. Even if they don’t, they’ll get to see some cool designs, and would be able to build a better model next year.

The event runs this Jan. 27 and 28 at the Telus World of Science Edmonton. Visit www.ftcalberta.ca for details.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.