JAY — Almost two hours into their design meeting Thursday night, Dan Lemieux's Spruce Mountain High School robotics team launched its first Frisbee.
True, it didn't go very far and the launcher wasn't much to look at.
It was an early prototype made of pine doorstops, a piece of aluminum, plywood and a small motor-driven wheel.
It's a long way off from the final design the team must finish by Feb. 19 and which will compete against teams from around the world.
But it was a start, and it was a good one.
Lemieux, the shop and applied technology teacher at Spruce Mountain, said there will be many more prototypes built over the next two weeks as the 40-member team of high school students, teachers and parent-mentors work to solve the problem: How do you build an autonomous robot that can fling a Frisbee disk accurately and climb a 12-foot-tall tower?
"I think some teams are going to build robots that can throw well," Lemieux said. "Others may concentrate on building climbers. We have to decide in the next couple of weeks which way we're going to go. It just depends on what we can come up with here, what kind of solutions we can build."
It's the second year for the Lemieux's team of robot builders in the FIRST competition. Last year they built Bowser, a basketball-shooting robot. They took rookie team honors at the regional competition in Worcester, Mass., and competed at the national championship in St. Louis.
The team hopes to repeat that success this spring at competitions in Massachusetts and Lewiston in hopes they can qualify for the nationals again.
"We can't win the rookie award this year," said Rob Taylor, a Spruce Mountain physics and gifted and talented teacher and co-leader of the robotics team. "But we have more experience and we know what to expect."
The FIRST competition — the acronym stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" — was created by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to promote science and engineering education. Last year, 2,548 teams from around the world competed in FIRST events and competitions.
Lewiston will host one of those events this year, the Pine Tree Regionals, April 4-6 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. It's one of 57 regional events scheduled around the country this spring, culminating in the championship April 24 in St. Louis.
More than 40 teams are expected to come to Lewiston for the Pine Tree Regionals, from as far north Prince Edward Island and as far south as Virginia.
"At first, we thought it was going to be a good, easy meet. But it won't," Lemieux said. "It's bringing in some real elite teams. The team from Boston is coming. The house team from Worcester, Mass., is coming and teams from Manchester. It's going to be a real challenge."
But to get there, they need to get their robot built, and they don't have much time.
"What is going to make you stand out?" Lemieux said. "What can we build that's going to give us the edge? That's what we are figuring out now."
All the teams were given this year's task at special events around the country and over the Internet on Jan. 5. Maine's teams gathered at the University of Southern Maine Campus to get their instructions.
Last year's FIRST challenge was to build a robot that could pick up and accurately shoot a basketball while navigating obstacles and bridges.
This year, they need to design robots that can throw the flying disks accurately into targets set around a 27- by 54-foot field. The harder the target is to reach, the better the score. They have to contend with other robots, which can block and push opponents as they battle to collect and throw disks.
Finally, the robots need to climb to the top of a pyramid tower in the center of the playing field and power down, locking them in place. The higher they climb, the better they score.
"If I was a rookie team this year, I wouldn't even attempt to climb," Lemieux said. "To get a functioning robot out there, one that actually drives, is hard enough."
Thursday, teammates and mentors all took turns trying to come up with solutions to various tasks. While mentor and co-leader Taylor worked with one group trying to design a mechanism to fling a disk, others tried to come up with a way to collect disks from the ground and load the flinger. Others considered the tower and how to build a robot that could climb it.
"One problem is that whatever they build to throw Frisbees, it's going to have to sit on top of whatever we build to climb the tower," said Dan Anctil, father of freshman teammate Brandon and one of the parent-mentors. "Anything they build to throw is going to be pretty heavy. So we need to find a way to climb without adding too much weight."
Taylor said the team did it last year and they can do it again. Last year, they came up with the final designs just days before the bag-and-tag day deadline.
"We got it built, everything and we knew it would do the job," Taylor said. "But we didn't get practice driving it. So the kids had to learn to drive on the fly. Once you put it away, you can't touch it until you get to the competition site."
According to FRC rules, they have to finish work on their creations by midnight Feb. 19. That's just 45 days to design, build and practice operating the robot before it gets locked up and put away until competition.
"So we're hoping we can get done earlier and get a few days of practice," Lemieux said.
Sophomore Chloe Flagg, the driving team captain, said she'll be ready.
"I was one of two drivers last year," she said. "The last day, before bag and tag, I was one of four kids that got to try it, and I did pretty good."
Each match lasts two minutes and 15 seconds, and the robots run in a programmed autonomous mode for the first 15 seconds. Points scored during the autonomous round count for double.
Next, Flagg and the other drivers step up to take control of their robots via radio remote, scoring points and blocking their opponents. As the game ends, the robots can climb the pyramid structures positioned in the center of the game field, winning more points the higher they climb.
There's strategy involved, a good bit of applied engineering and creativity all coming out in the next few weeks.
"The whole match is only two minutes and 15 seconds," Lemieux said. "That's all the time you have to throw Frisbees and navigate around the field and climb the tower. It goes pretty quickly."
Do you know a creative person with a technological bent? We'd love to talk to them. Contact Staff Writer Scott Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter as Orange_me or call 207-689-2846.