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CHS Student Engineers Compete in Bell Vertical Robotics Challenge

Cleburne High School engineering students will have their use of 21st century technology skills tested “under fire” as contestants in the Bell Vertical Robotics 2022 Emergency Firefighting Challenge taking place Friday, November 18 at UT-Arlington.

                The 13-member team will be utilizing drones and robots to contain a simulated structure fire before it spreads, according to CHS STEM/Robotics teacher Roel Peña.

“This is a dual operation with students flying drones and navigating ground robots at the same time,” Peña said. “This exercise has involved our students in building a very complex drone from scratch, including software. They are also learning to work as a team.”

A variety of skills have been required as Cleburne’s student engineers moved from concept to construction. Mechanical design, electrical and soldering talents necessary in building their creations to coding, in developing software to control and navigate--all is complete and now in the hands of the student operators.

                Senior Elizabeth Youngberg is captain of the mission. The first CHS student to achieve the FAA 107 Drone Pilot Certification as a sophomore, she is also on standby as the alternate drone pilot.  Fellow senior Jacob Wenzel is the drone pilot and programmer, with Ein Dorries manning the information technology platform as primary programmer.  Mini Drone Pilot is Gabriel Clifford.

Emily Day is the Cleburne team’s lead firefighter and will be utilizing sphero robots to battle the blaze along with firefighters Kayden Finley and Tyler Williams. The unit also includes Josiah Jackson-ground vehicle driver; Xavier Rodriguez, ground vehicle alternate driver; Paithen Steinbrink-drone mechanic programmer; course architect and alternate firefighter-Nevaeh Robles and alternate ground firefighters Sylvia Gutierrez and Satiya Carter.

Those involved with drone operations—known as Cleburne’s Death Star Team—will be challenged with extinguishing the fire from the air.

“Our drone has to drop plastic balls, which simulate water, onto the fire,” Wenzel said. “We will also be given a laser, which we will be using to shoot at the structure’s windows, simulating a water cannon. We’ll be aiming at hot spots, which will cause the fire to spread if they aren’t put out. Red lights within the model structure will simulate the fire.”

“I’m a bit nervous,” he said. “The plan is for me to be the pilot through the various phases of the contest. It weighs five pounds and I will have to keep it balanced the whole time. Even the tiniest bit of wind—like when the air conditioner turns on—can throw the drone off balance.  It’s a physical and mental thing—I have to be aware and attentive at all times.”

Cleburne’s Rover Team will be using their equipment and skills to keep the fire from spreading. Their ground robots are built from parts the student engineers designed—then created--using the 3D printer.

“Among the things we will be judged on is communication,” Clifford said. “The role of the Rover Team is to keep the fire from spreading—we will be judged on how well we contained the fire. I get our ‘firefighters’ on the Rover—our ground robot. That means getting them on the correct path, to get them loaded. We’ve done a lot of practicing after school.”

The competition will be conducted in timed phases. Phase I will test drone operations, followed by Phase II in which the firefighting effort moves to ground level and robots enter the fight to contain.

“If we are cleared to continue into Phase III, which is the end game, we’ll be fighting the fire as fast as we can,” Youngberg said. “If we stop the fire, we get points. We can also lose points until the fire is controlled. It can be a bit of a gamble.”

“This challenge is very convoluted and complex, compared to last year’s, in which we used a drone in search and rescue following an earthquake. We had to rescue hikers.”

The stakes are also higher in Bell’s 2022 Vertical Robotics challenge. Top contestants from Texas will continue to compete at the national level. Peña believes the Cleburne team has a fighting chance to be among those advancing.

“This group jelled quickly,” he said. “They have a lot of technical, and natural, capabilities. They’ve been very cooperative in their schedules to get things accomplished. Several of these students also work after school, but they have been very dedicated in their commitment to this project—and their teammates.”

“I think their skills as a team will be quite evident if something goes wrong at some point in the exercise,” he said. “Their dynamic in problem-solving is tremendous. They won’t give up—and that would be cool to see. They are so driven and if they experience a little glitch, then ‘zip, zip’ they will make that repair and get back on track to competing. That would be very impressive for the judges to see.”

Cleburne’s team leaders describe the challenge as fun—with endless possibilities.

“At the competition, we get to see lots of creative designs we never thought of,” Youngberg said. “It’s very impressive.”

“I think that’s why Bell sponsors this,” Dorries said. “They get to see numerous ways a problem can be solved. The kids in the competition are also learning and gaining confidence in seeing what they can do.”