The Revival of Robotics

William Wang ’24 in Features | February 17, 2023

It’s 3:26 AM in the morning. Today is February 12. Today is the day the team finds out if we qualify for states. I can’t sleep. Not even a year ago, we barely had three members, and the thought of making it to states was a million miles away. Looking back at what the robotics team at Lawrenceville went through to get to today, it took dedicated people, a lot of time, and full commitment.
The School’s robotics team competes in a competition called First Tech Challenge (FTC). Every September, the organizers of FTC release a game with a set of challenges, and teams compete to build a robot that satisfies these challenges. Each year, the game has similar requirements, which include picking up items such as cubes, cones, and balls.
Robotics was a dead club last year. Management of the robotics team was misguided, and it hadn’t officially competed since the 2018-2019 season; even then, the club was unable to retain IV and V Form members who competed as II and III Formers during that year. Despite the number of students who signed up during club nights, day by day, students trickled away. By December, there were four people: the two captains, Ethan Camin ’22 and Anushka Chintamaneni ’23, Suvas Aggarwal ’25, and me.
Although we had a robot, we had neither the manpower nor the time to complete all the tasks associated with entering a competition. Despite the team's lack of interest, we still met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:00 PM. Throughout the year, I asked myself, “Why was I devoting all this time to something that no one had respected nor cared for?” By the Spring Term, Aggarwal and I knew that we needed some form of aid in the next season if we wanted to compete. We decided to replicate a robot we saw on YouTube for that year’s competition. Looking back, this strategy seems almost laughable. But coming into the robotics room three days a week, sometimes until 9:00 PM, showed me that progress was possible. Aggarwal and I would even come in during consultation to work on our robot. Yet, as we progressed, the easier it was to recognize a simple fact: robotics is not something people can simply come and go into. It is a commitment, and although many may like the idea of robotics on paper, few students can dedicate four to five hours a week beyond their academic and athletic commitments. This fact isn’t just evident for robotics, but for nearly all clubs on campus. For a school that advertises the “hundreds of clubs” it hosts, very few of them have the proper faculty leaders, funding, student leadership, or time to run a club at all, let alone effectively.
    The Dean of Academics, however, had a vested economic interest in developing a competitive robotics team. This interest allowed the robotics team to become a co-curricular, serving as a substitute for the weekly athletic requirements. I won’t act as if the revival of the robotics team this year was solely guided by students. Without administrative guidance, the team would not have achieved the success it has this year. But I don’t want to underscore the efforts of the students on the robotics team either. The School invested in the hopes of a small group of highly dedicated students to commit, and commit they did. Despite our modest aspirations at the beginning of the season, we are now one of the top teams in the state ranked by average points scored. We came into states having competed in 10 qualification matches, in which we went 9-1. We went undefeated during our first meet in December. In our second tournament in January, we went 4-1 in our placement matches. We progressed to the semi-finals, and despite our respectable scores of over 130 points in both semi-final matches, we were ultimately eliminated by spectacular performances from the eventual champions of that tournament.
I was not confident entering the league tournament (which allowed us to qualify for states), as the path to qualify was limited. Only 6 of the 22 teams in the event were able to qualify for the state championship. We had a pre-event ranking which, coupled with five qualification matches, would determine our overall ranking. The top four teams also automatically qualified for the semi-finals as alliance captains. Alliance captains form an alliance, which combines their teams with another of their choosing. To qualify, we had to be on the winning alliance or win the Inspire Award—an award dedicated to a group that best embodies the spirit of the challenge, including outreach and a competitive robot. The Inspire Award, among other awards, would be determined by a presentation each team gives to a panel of judges to discuss their season, consisting of an Engineering Portfolio, which is a detailed “resume” of the team’s progress in that season. 
We had no outreach. Our path was to win or go home.
On February 12, at 8:00 AM, the team traveled to Hightstown High School for the competition. Entering the tournament, the setup process was straightforward, as we passed through the necessary safety inspections before the qualification matches. The first obstacle of the day was the presentation to the judge panel. With only a brief script, we had to prepare a five-minute long presentation to the panel of judges. We only practiced twice. Pacing up and down the hallway with relatively low hopes, we successfully delivered the presentation in the proper time frame and answered all questions. The real challenge, however, was still in front of us.
We entered the tournament ranked eighth out of the 22 teams. Despite our higher win-to-loss ratio and our higher average points scored, the rankings took into account the games we played, putting us at a disadvantage. We had only played 10 games, compared to many other teams, who had played nearly 30. Yet as the qualification matches came and went, we slowly crawled up the standings, eventually ranking as high as third place. We went 4-0 until the last match, when we were paired against a solid alliance that was able to score consistently. Unfortunately, they handed us our first loss. Coupled with a tie-breaking system that did not favor us, we entered the playoff bracket as the fifth-ranked team—one place out of the guaranteed spots in the playoff bracket. Additionally, since only 20 out of the 22 teams showed up, the alliances no longer consisted of three teams, but two. This change only further narrowed our window for qualification.
As the fifth-ranked team, we had to petition other teams to select us. Traditionally high-ranked teams would select among each other, but in this unique situation, the first-ranked team, Hornet Silver of Holmdel High School, selected us. Since the second and the third alliance captains chose each other, this bumped alliance captain number four down the ranked list, making our first semi-final games relatively easy, with our alliance scoring twice as much as our opponents. But this easier semi-final match came at the expense of an incredibly strong opponent in the final. Our opponents were the Radiators from The Hun School of Princeton and The Short Circuits from Hightstown. Both teams reliably parked and scored during the autonomous period of the match, where there is no driver input. Compared to our alliance, whose robots lacked consistency, we were almost sure of a loss in the finals. With an initial defeat by only four points, we edged out a victory in the next match when one of our opponent’s robots lost connection for 20 seconds. In the final match, despite the tense back and forth between both alliances, our last-minute scoring allowed us to win the series 157-142. With this, we qualified for states and won the tournament.  
At the closing ceremony, we received our medals and our award for taking part in the winning alliance. We also won the Control Award, which is given to the team with the most advanced software, thanks to our use of OpenCV, distance sensors, and our camera. 
Despite being their captain, I have seen my team members far surpass me in many ways. Jack Wade ’26 and Andrew Friedman ’26 have played critical roles in the engineering components of the team. Suvas Aggarwal ’25 (my co-captain) and Arisa Okamura ’25 have played equally essential roles in programming our robot. I had very little expectations at the start of this year, but their dedication and hard work is more than commendable, and I am truly appreciative of them. (Of course, I won’t forget the scouting and statistical work done by Robert Lee ’26, and the work done on the lift by Garrett Heffern ’24). As captain, instead of trying to solve all of the team's problems, the most I can do is guide my team along a path that balances academic commitments and a competitive passion for robotics. It took time for me to embrace that. I hope for a sustainable and long-lasting program for future Lawrentians interested in robotics.
I have just arrived back home after the tournament. It’s 10:35 PM. A medal sits on my table, and I still can’t wrap my head around everything we have achieved. As tomorrow edges closer and closer, I know we will head back into the routine of Lawrenceville. Still, I’d like to lock this moment, this program, and this team in my mind. I know that the next generations of Lawrentians will achieve much more in the robotics program and beyond.