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Lockport High team rolls out ‘Totezilla’

LOCKPORT – Using a design that students said poses some risks, the Lockport High School Warlocks demonstrated their 2015 robot Monday, one they hope will bring them another chance at a world robotics championship later this year.

Monday’s rollout of “Totezilla,” the team’s entry in the national FIRST robotics contest, was a big step on the road to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, home stadium of the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams and site of the world finals April 22-25.

Lockport is one of only six schools in Western New York that competes in FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The competition was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter.

The Warlocks won the gold medal last year at the Finger Lakes regional competition. This year, they have two chances to win their way to St. Louis, at competitions March 5-7 at California University of Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, and three weeks later at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Lockport, which has been fielding a team for 10 years, is involved in elementary and middle school robotics programs as well.

James P. Rogowski, a technology teacher at Lockport High, is president of a not-for-profit corporation, Lockport Robotics, which obtains a budget of about $60,000 a year for the project, almost entirely from corporate sponsorships. The district does make a contribution and provides transportation to competitions, about $7,000 all told, according to Rogowski, who also is a Cheektowaga town councilman.

The Warlocks designed the robot with computer-aided drawing software and assembled it with a variety of parts, some recycled from previous years and others made to order on Lockport High’s 3-D printer.

“This is not something where you can go into a store and buy a kit. We designed and cut all this,” Rogowski said. “The wiring was done by our students with help from our mentors.”

The rules of the game change every year. This year’s challenge, called “Recycle Rush,” was unveiled Jan. 3, and teams were limited to six weeks to build a robot that weighs no more than 120 pounds and stands no more than 6½ feet tall, which would be able to pick up recycling totes and stack them as high as possible. A plastic garbage container can be stacked atop the rectangular totes for bonus points, and a foam “noodle” can be inserted by the robot in a specially cut slot in the garbage can lid for more points.

The team’s goal is to score as many points as possible in 2 minutes, 15 seconds, after an initial 15-second demonstration of robot maneuvering.

During the first 15 seconds, “the robot runs a program with no guidance from the team,” said Albert M. Gritzmacher Jr., a retired electrician from Delphi Thermal who serves as a senior mentor to the Warlocks.

The students chosen to man the joysticks controlling the robot spent most of Monday in the high school cafeteria, testing the response of the controls and trying to become adept in moving Totezilla around without falling victim to the admittedly unbalanced design that has most of the weight in the front. During the first test run, the robot lurched at one point and almost did a face-plant.

“We are still debugging our code,” explained junior Kenny Handley, one of the two students at the controls.

After the first run, some team members knelt in front of Totezilla. “Our can picker-upper has come loose,” Kenny said. “We’ve never officially named it.”

The robot arms are designed to pick up containers both in the front and in the back of the unit, in hopes of maximizing scoring.

Nate Brick, a freshman, said zip ties were used to tighten the PVC pipe at the end of the robot arm. “As long as you stay within your weight constraints, 120 pounds, you can do whatever you want,” he said. “We’re very slightly under 120 pounds. We’re struggling to meet our weight constraints. … You can be disqualified if you’re overweight.”

The near tip-over was “a big issue,” said Oscar Handley, Kenny’s sophomore brother. “We were concerned our center of gravity wasn’t going to be low enough.”

In past years, the contest had a defensive element to it. Robots were allowed to interfere with other teams’ robots, which meant that protective bumpers were a part of the design. But this year, FIRST decreed that there would be no defensive play, so the designers had no need to protect their robots from attack.

The building process can be time-consuming. “During the last two weeks, we normally stayed here between 8 and 11 p.m.,” Oscar said. “At the beginning of the build season, we would stay from 2:30 to 5.”

Monday’s demonstration was to have included a team from Nichols School, but Rogowski said the Nichols Electric Mayhems “are having issues with the operations of their robot.”

Lockport mentored Nichols to join the FIRST community, and last year, Nichols won the rookie-of-the-year award. But Monday was all about the Warlocks trying to make Totezilla pile up the totes, and the points.

“We’re estimating we can get two to three six-stacks (in 2:15),” Kenny said. “As we get more practice, we’ll be able to get three stacks.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews,com