November 24, 2014

'Malfunction' causes chaos for First Robotics team

Courtesy photo
SSC's robot has held up well in the team's first two contests, but an alleged malfunction was a cause for panic after the team's latest competition.
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STANDISH — The Standish-Sterling First Robotics team has performed well in its first two competitions over recent weeks, but the rookie team was dealing with a near-catastrophe when it returned home from its last competition Saturday, March 29.

While unloading the robot at Standish-Sterling Central High School late Saturday night, team adviser Terry Fegan said the bot was momentarily out of control, leaving a trail of wreckage at the school.

“We thought something was up on the ride home,” Fegan said. “The robot’s catapulting arm seemed to keep swinging up and down. It was like it had a mind of its own.”

Silas Borgue, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Artificial Intelligence’s Robotic Disaster department, said despite some of the SSC team member’s initial reports, the robot did not develop the ability to think and act independently.

“There is a particular post-competition glubricating application many First Robotics teams prefer to use on an exhausted machine,” he said. “It is not unusual for this application to seep into the workings or robots and cause parts to involuntarily function.”

According to Borgue, the substance has been banned due to safety reasons, but many experienced teams try to prank rookie First Robotics competitors by telling them it fully restores any damaged moving parts in the robots.

“I’m sure this was just a case of a few bad apples thinking they could pick on the new kids,” he said.

While Borgue says the post-contest preparations were to blame, Fegan said that he and team members are not buying it.

“For one, we didn’t even use that grease, so throw that out the window,” he said. “Two, even if we did, how do you explain the aggression? Not only was the arm swinging up and down violently, but the robot actually chased one of the students.”

“I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me, either, but I actually saw it,” Fegan continued. “I don’t know why, but for some reason, the robot seemed legitimately angry at one of our kids.”

Borgue said any tales of the robot’s literal manhunt are only figments of team members’ imaginations.

“They’re saying the robot seemed to have targeted one of the kids,” he said. “That’s impossible. To do that, the robot would have to see this person, and have the ability to think and feel emotions.”

“If what the team is reporting is true in regards to the so-called chase, then I’m guessing a student on the team was controlling it and having a little fun,” Borgue added.

Fegan said that would have been feasible, had he not returned to check back on the robot the next morning and witnessed additional damage that apparently occurred overnight.

“Eventually that night, we disconnected the battery and the robot powered down, putting an end to the chaos,” he said. “But the next day when I went back, my room was trashed, and there were tire tracks around the room, ending right where the robot sat — which was where it was when we powered it down. If that robot didn’t somehow power up and drive around the room, overthrowing desks, tossing papers and just, well, making a mess, then I must be losing it.”

With the assistance of some team mentors, the mess was cleaned up and all of the robots wires were disconnected and the tires were removed, ensuring it could not move.

SSC Principal Mark Williams said despite the dangerous situation, he still is proud of the robotics team.

“These kids not only performed well at competition, but it sounds like they pretty much made a breakthrough scientific discovery,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the robot causing thousands of dollars worth in broken desks, damaged classroom equipment and torn up carpet, I’d say they deserve an award.”

Fegan said the hectic night is not getting the students’ spirits down.

“Now that it’s over, I think we’re all a little bit relieved — shaken, but relieved,” he said. “The kids seem to be taking it well, but I do think they are a little upset that I told them we had to scrap the plans to install vocal technology on the next robot. It would’ve been cool, but I don’t want to know what that robot might have said during its little temper tantrum.

“While the kids were upset about not being able to do the voice, they seemed to agree that it was best not to follow up on our original plan to install laser eyes,” he added.

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