LEWISTON — The Colisee was brimming with finely engineered robots Friday morning, but Spruce Mountain High School freshman Bryan Riley’s was the coolest.

Riley was on hand to help cheer on his team — Spruce Mountain Area Robotics — at the third annual Pine Tree Regionals. The contest pits high school engineers and their robots against one another in a timed, colorful contest.

It was the public debut of Riley’s $50,000 robotic arm, which was attached to his wheelchair. The arm, a JACO 2 designed by Canadian firm Kinova, will give Riley greater capability once he masters it. He’s only had it since Tuesday.

“I can push buttons on the elevator now, or push handicapped buttons to open up doors,” he said. “I’ve gotten good at that.”

Riley has been diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease, Duchene muscular dystrophy. He can use his hands but can’t raise his arms much higher than his shoulders.

“He’s very mature, but I can’t leave him at home alone — or I couldn’t,” said his mother, Tina Riley. “Now, with this, if he drops the phone on the floor he can pick it up. He can open up the front door by himself if he needs to leave. For me, it means he can be on his own and that’s important for a 15-year-old.”

His condition is expected to worsen as he gets older.

“That’s why he is able to get the arm now and get familiar with it,” said mentor Rob Taylor, a Spruce Mountain teacher and coach of the robotics team.

Taylor was one of many RSU 73 teachers who helped raise money for the arm, and the process has been combined with the robotics team. Taylor said engineers from Kinova came to the school earlier this year to fit Riley’s chair with a demonstration arm, and then they talked to students about how it worked.

“It was a great opportunity for the kids to see that what they are doing right now, building robots, has some important real-world implications,” Taylor said. “They can see how what they are doing can really help someone.”

It’s part of what FIRST Robotics is all about. The point of the contest is to challenge the teens and promote science, engineering and math.

But promoting goodwill, cooperation and friendship is also key. This year, 31 teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine brought their robots. The teens wandered the pit area between contests, swapping pins, memorabilia and Facebook friend requests with new acquaintances.

This is the third year for the Pine Tree Regionals, hosted at the Colisee. It’s part of the national FIRST competition. The acronym stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and was created by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to promote science and engineering education.

Teams of students and mentor adults find out in the fall what their robots will be required to do. They have to come up with a workable engineering solution to a problem, then design, build and program their robot. Six teams at a time compete several times throughout the day, racking up points. The most points at the end of the day advance to the next stage.

This year’s contest is a recycling theme. Robots have to be able to pick up, stack and move large recycling bins and trash cans. The higher the stacks, the more points they earn.

Past contests have been knockabout affairs, with robots slamming into competitors trying to collect balls or Frisbees and launch them into targets. This year, the teams have less contact and are being encouraged to work more cooperatively.

It led to taller, less steady robots with less padding on the bottom. The Spruce Mountain team nicknamed their entry Weeble Wobble because of the way it wobbles as it moves.

But teams also compete for Safety Awards, Spirit and the coveted Chairman’s Award, and that’s Riley’s task this year. Teams have to make a presentation to judges about their philosophy, what they’ve learned and the teamwork it took to get them there.

Riley worked with the Spruce Mountain team using computer-aided design software and the school’s 3-D printer to make team logos and a scale model of the contest area. Taylor said the team used that to plot strategy with the other teams they were cooperating with during competitions.

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Pine Tree Regionals, FIRST Robotics Competition continues Saturday, March 14, at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, 190 Birch St., Lewiston.

Competitions run from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by an awards ceremony.

The competition is open to the public and free of charge.


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