CPIT robotics players to go state-side for world champs

News News & events

31 Mar 2015

Christchurch boy and CPIT robotics student Alex Towse is off to the VEX Robotics World Championships in the United States mid-April.

The 18 year-old Christchurch Boys' High School pupil, who regularly takes part in CPIT's junior robotics programmes, is New Zealand's representative at the prestigious event, to be held at Louisville in Kentucky, April 15-18.

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It will attract 10,000 high school-aged students from throughout the world, who will showcase their skill in building, programming and competing in games specially designed for robots made by Amercan-based manufacturers VEX Robotics, which are driven my remote control.

Towse, in year 13, is planning to become an engineer, like his father and grandfather. He said building robots was a bit like making powered Meccano, the model construction system created in the United Kingdom by Frank Hornby, in 1901.

"If robotics had come along when they were my age, they'd have been doing it too, as well as playing with Meccano."

New Zealand has enjoyed considerable success at the annual event. In 2014, a New Zealand robotics team won the Vex Robotics World Championships in the United States for the sixth time in a row, with CPIT engineering student and robotics tutor Harry Loughnan also making the semi-finals during that time.

"I'll try my best and enjoy myself, and make the most of the whole experience," Towse said.

His tutor and friend Loughnan will participate in the world champs as a judge. He is also the CPIT junior robotics programme coordinator Miranda Satterthwaite's second in command, helping to deliver science, technology, engineering and maths or STEM learning.

She has also known Towse since her days as a robotics teacher at Christchurch Boys' High School.

"He's virtually had the key to the lab since I left, and he's run the whole operation, including managing the other robotics students. He's exactly the type of young person we're growing through the CPIT robotics programmes, to take a lead in Christchurch's engineering future."

Robotics and engineering had direct parallels in terms of skill-level, Satterthwaite said, and Towse and Loughnan aspired to reach the top of their game in both. However, competition also requires daring, nerves of steel and meticulous preparation, as 20 year-old Loughnan knows only too well from his own experience over the last five years.  "If there's one thing I can tell Alex, it's that his robot needs to be perfect," Loughnan said.

By that he means just as a racing car team makes sure all the machine's parts and wiring are in working order, so too must the robot driver ensure the robot's reliability is spot on. 

"Leading up to a competition, Alex will eat, sleep and breathe robotics. His entire life will revolve around the robot.  A world championship is on a whole new level of BIG."

A natural progression after regional and national tournaments, the event had become so popular it had outgrown its former Anaheim, California base.

"Alex will need to stay calm and handle the pressure, and listen and trust the coach. He'll have to think on his feet and have the flexibility to change the plan at a drop of a hat," Loughnan said.

A game is played on a 3.7 by 3.7 square metre area, about the size of an average bedroom. "Skyrise' is this year's world championship theme. Each game last two minutes, with teams split into red and blue, playing for coloured cubes. The fastest team to accrue points by directing their robot to pick up the cubes, and place them on towers or designated areas, wins.  A team can play up to 150 games in a world championship.

With the strategy of chess and the jostling of netball, it's a sport where what can go wrong will go wrong, especially damage to the robots by unintentional collisions, Loughnan said.

Despite the nerve-wracking nature of competition, and the huge expense of travel that he's mostly had to self-fund, Loughnan said he could not see himself outgrowing his beloved bots, for the challenge and problem solving skills they will bring to his career in mechanical engineering.