photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
At Dorton Arena one recent afternoon, groups of teenagers wearing kooky matching outfits huddled
together, eyes fixed on an obstacle course of sorts – but machines were navigating it, not people. As the teenagers looked on, robots they’d built themselves lifted stacks of massive rubber totes and industrial-sized trash cans off the floor and stacked them onto narrow scoring platforms.
They were gathered for the North Carolina Regional robotics competition, one of more than 50 around the world sponsored by FIRST Robotics, a nonprofit created “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” On this day, 55 teams of kids from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were vying for their own robot to win this recycling-themed challenge.
FIRST Robotics calls these competitions a “varsity sport for the mind,” since they combine the rivalry of athletics with the technical skills of robotic engineering. Teams often emerge from area schools including Athens Drive and Green Hope high schools. Most teams have sponsors – IBM, Duke Energy, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers are some – who fund their teams. That pays the cost of supplies, but the kids spend countless hours over six intense weeks building these ’bots from scratch: several hours after school every night, and full weekend days. The time invested makes victory even more sweet.
Local fans cheered when a southern Wake County team, the Hitchhikers, emerged as one of three winners at this late March state competition.
The Hitchhikers, sponsored by Optimist International, United Therapeutics, Best Buy Children’s Foundation, Duke Energy, ASME, IBM, Gregory Poole, and Athens Drive High School, built their ’bot at the Optimist Club Farm in Apex, and at press time were getting ready to take it to the national finals in St. Louis.