Lake Placid teens take home silver medals at robotics competition

From left, Lake Placid Middle-High School tech teacher Brian LaVallee, Dean of Students Tammy Casey, Spanish teacher Olaf Carlson, eighth-grader Alex Wright and 10th-grader Patrick Manning pose with Albert II, the robot that helped them bring home a silver medal at the New York Tech Valley regional FIRST robotics competition this past weekend. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid Middle-High School students Alex Wright and Patrick Manning zoomed a 3-foot tall robot around the tech classroom.

The robot is named Albert II after the space-traveling rhesus monkey. In 1949, Albert II the monkey became the first mammal to reach space. However, upon re-entry, his parachute system failed, and the monkey died on impact.

The robotic Albert II whirred and hissed like a choir of electrical drills as Wright and Manning performed hairpin turns around work stools — sometimes crashing, yet still impressive.

It was this type of driving and cooperation that led the Lake Placid Middle-High School robotics team, the Robolympians, to a silver medal at the New York Tech Valley regional FIRST competition this past weekend at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“Losing or winning didn’t really seem to matter,” Manning said. “It was just so much fun. As soon as we got into the finals we were really happy and surprised to have gotten that far.

Lake Placid Middle-High School students Alex Wright, left, and Patrick Manning control Albert II, a robot they built at school. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

This is the second year Lake Placid has competed in the competition. Tech teacher Brian LaVallee and Spanish teacher Olaf Carlson said it was amazing to see so much improvement in only one year.

“Last year we won the highest rookie seed award,” he said. “In our wildest dreams, we hoped to perform well. We just wanted to get into at least the quarterfinals this year.”

“This year, our kids did a great job of consistently scoring,” Carlson added. “They performed incredibly well.”

In January, more than 7,000 teams across the world are given parts for their robots and rules for the competition. This year’s event was called “Destination: Deep Space,” and it had teams using robots to attach panels to the hull of miniature rocket ships and load them up with cargo (rubber balls).

LaVallee describes the competition as a “super-high-energy, stressful, problem-solving environment.”

When the competition reaches the final matches, teams start to form alliances of three. By the final match, Lake Placid’s intake mechanism — the part of the robot that enables you to score points — broke down. So while the other teams in their alliance scored points, Lake Placid played defense, ramming into other robots and putting them off course.

“I was a little bit of an aggressive driver,” Wright said. “You can do whatever you want defensively except pin another robot against the wall for five seconds.”

Despite using a modern-looking video game controller for the movement, the input is a little old school. It feels more like a remote-control car or the first three “Resident Evil” video games, where pushing up on the analog stick is always going to go in the same direction no matter your orientation. Wright and Manning said it wasn’t difficult to master, and thankfully they didn’t have tank controls.

“In tank controls, there are two analog sticks, and if push forward on one, that brings the entire right side forward,” Manning said. “You have to push the other side with the same amount of pressure to keep it straight.”

“This one was a lot easier to adapt to, and we got good at it,” Wright said.

Wright is in eighth grade, but he was with the robotics team last year, too. Manning got involved because some friends told him it was a fun class.

“I’ve always been interested in robotics and building things,” Wright said. “When I was asked to join, I said yes, and it’s been great ever since.”

The students and the teachers all said they would like to see more participation in the robotics class. Carlson said he would like to bring a robotics competition to Lake Placid and have schools in the area compete against each other.

“The goal is getting more kids involved,” Carlson said. “We want to keep doing this, and we want students to get excited about it.”

Other schools in the area such as Northwood School in Lake Placid and St. Bernard’s in Saranac Lake also offer clubs and classes in robotics.

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