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Perspectives IIT Robot Builders Defeat Rivals, Head to World Championships

By Sam Cholke | April 16, 2013 7:47am

GRAND BOULEVARD — Student robot builders at Perspectives IIT Math and Science Academy have taken down some of the big names in a game of mechanized Frisbee golf and are headed to the world championships.

“It’s all the best of the best teams now,” said sophomore Kamaria Rasul, one of the pilots of “Baby Red,” a Frisbee-shooting robot.

Rasul and other members of the Iron Wolves robotics team will travel to St. Louis on April 24 for three days of Ultimate Ascent.

The game gives teams of high school students six weeks to build a robot that can throw as many Frisbees as it can across a basketball-court-size field into goals in two minutes and 15 seconds.

In a twist, the robot must act completely autonomously for the first 15 seconds and can earn extra points by climbing a nine-foot pyramid-shaped jungle gym.

Rasul was on the team that programmed the robot to act on its own and joins sophomore and team captain Mario Franco in the pit as a robot pilot.

“There are some really good teams out there,” said Franco, who led the team in defeating rival Wild Sting from Schaumburg on April 6 at the Midwest regional competition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Team coach Joe Michaelis started grooming then-freshman Franco last year to take over when many of the upperclassmen on the team prepared to graduate from the school at 3663 S. Wabash Ave.

“I try to get everyone together and working as a team,” Franco said.

He helped the team get through a rough competition in Cincinnati, when the computer piloting the robot suddenly died and Baby Red was left paralyzed in the middle of the court.

“In Cincinnati we had a lot of breakdowns.” Franco said. “Our shooter got jammed a lot.”

Michaelis admits he thought the group of mostly 15- and 16-year-olds maybe wasn’t ready for the finals. He was shocked when the Iron Wolves were able to defeat Wild Sting, a team with easy access to engineers from Schaumburg-based Motorola.

“It’s very hard to get engineers to work with our team because most of the engineers around town work in the suburbs,” said Michaelis, who started enrolling the school in the competition five years ago. “They’re literally in Motorola’s back yard and they’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

In the head-to-head matchup, the Perspectives IIT students tied their well-resourced Schaumburg competitors, and beat them in the overall tournament.

“They’ve got a lot of resources, they’re like Notre Dame was in football,” said Sean Taylor, an engineer from Motorola’s downtown office mentoring the Perspectives team. “If you can take them down, you’ve really jumped” into the leadership position.

Taylor has helped Michaelis over the past five years convert the school’s former library into a robotics workshop. The team’s only tool in the first year was Michaelis’ father’s old jigsaw. At the time, the school’s computers couldn’t keep up with the demands of the software necessary to design the robot. And the coach didn’t know anything about robots.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Michaelis, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. “I came in not knowing how to do any of this stuff.”

Michaelis dove into the discipline with the same vigor as his students and enlisted Taylor and graduate students from the Illinois Institute of Technology to help out. But mostly he just lets the kids figure out what problems need to be solved and what questions to ask.

“It’s not that intense, it’s just a matter of thought,” said pilot and programmer Rasul. “It was pretty easy actually.”

Winners of the national competition get a trophy, but Michaelis and the student team are in it for the glory.

“If we get this, we’ll be a team to be reckoned with,” Michaelis said. “We’re a good team. If we get this, we’ll be great.”