Students from all over California battle it out in annual robotics competition

They can zip around at high speed. They can lift hundreds of pounds. They can even dunk.

The student-made robots at this year’s Capital City Classic FIRST robot-building competition duked it out Sunday in Elk Grove at the Pleasant Grove High School gym, scoring points against each other by dropping bouncy orange balls into bins and festooning designated panels with thin plastic discs.

FIRST – which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, an organization founded in 1989 to promote youth interest in STEM fields – holds regional engineering contests that pit student engineers against each other, and this year’s Capital City Classic contest included more than 40 teams from California.

The competition featured robots built by the host school, as well as local high schools Cosumnes Oaks and Davis.

The Davis-based Citrus Circuits, Team 1678, has been participating in competitions since 2005, head coach Steve Harvey said. Students begin their robot building season in January, when FIRST announces the kinds of games that will appear at contests, he said.

Last year, robots threw yellow cubes into baskets, while contestants in this year’s space-themed competition had to work together in an alliance-based ballgame where different teams temporarily joined forces to score points.

After brainstorming possible strategies ahead of competitions, students spend months engineering and building the robots, Harvey said.

“You’re basically designing a robot to be able to pick up the game elements and score them, so we built a robot that has an elevator that takes the ball and the hatch panel to a height of about seven or eight feet, and then we also have this climbing mechanism that is unique,” Harvey said.

For one phase of the competition, robots must climb up onto a platform, but with a catch — the platform is only big enough to reasonably fit one robot, while each alliance has three robots in the game at any given time.

“Our robot is the only robot in the world that actually managed to lift two other robots with us up to that platform level,” Harvey said.

Gabi Skilling, a student and a spokeswoman for the team, said most of the robots entered in the competition weigh well over 100 pounds each.

Skilling said Citrus Circuits is comprised of just over 100 students from various schools in the Davis area. The team is broken up into subgroups that specialize in different areas, Skilling said. Student software designers, for example, developed applications used for remote control and monitor the performance of other robots, she said.

After competing in several regional competitions, Harvey said the next step is the world championships. The Citrus Circuits, he said, have qualified for the global contest for the last nine years.

“It’s pretty intense,” Harvey said. “There’s a bunch of high school-age kids that have spent a lot of their time putting together all these different robots and this is the final test of how well they do, so everyone is excited and animated, and robots are battling out, and robots break, and you have to run into the pits and fix them, so it’s super high energy — a lot of fun, but a lot of skill that goes into that.”

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Vincent Moleski covers business and breaking news for The Bee and is a graduate student in literature at Sacramento State. He was born and raised in Sacramento and previously wrote for the university’s student newspaper, the State Hornet.