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Block Ness teaches Neil McNeil robotics team

Three days before a city-wide robotics contest, a freak radio problem had the Neil McNeil team re-thinking fast.

Students in the Neil McNeil robotics club listen to teacher and assistant robotics coach Jason Milne, bottom left, with just a few days to go before this year's TCDSB robotics contest. This year's robots had to load and shoot hockey pucks on a large-scale crokinole board. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Students in the Neil McNeil robotics club listen to teacher and assistant robotics coach Jason Milne, bottom left, with just a few days to go before this year's TCDSB robotics contest. This year's robots had to load and shoot hockey pucks on a large-scale crokinole board.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

The club robot, a.k.a. Block Ness Monster, was mostly behaving – it could carry a hockey puck, slide it on a giant crokinole board, and shoot it with an air-powered piston.

(For the uninitiated, crokinole is a parlour game, invented in 1870s Ontario, where rivals flick small wood disks across a circular board, either to land them in a target or knock each other’s disks out, curling style. One robotics coach called it “the great Canadian game that apparently no one has ever played.”)

But a radio hiccup from the robot’s remote control caused the piston to fire every time someone hit the ‘on’ button.

And the team still had to re-design the robot’s aiming arm so it could scoop new pucks from a loader.

“It’s been like this since Grade 9,” said Adam Cyprus, now in his senior year.

Watching the team puzzle over ways to shield the robot from radio interference, Cyprus said the week before a competition is always haywire – the robot has so many ways to fail.

Just then came a shout from Martin Zielinski, a physics teacher with an engineering background who has coached the after-school club for a decade.

“Plan B is now Plan A!” Zielinski said. “We have a plan, and it’s executable.”

While they kept the drive and steering systems from last year’s robot (it played Connect Four), Zielinski said this year’s build was the first to use pneumatics.

“Every year we get to explore novel designs, novel solutions,” he said.

Started by teacher Bob Tone at Francis Libermann Catholic High School, Zielinski said the TCDSB’s club league is a grassroots effort that runs at a fraction of the cost of leagues that build much larger robots, such as First Robotics.

Started in the early 2000s, the TCDSB league now involves five to seven schools, with the top team competing at Skills Ontario.

Even on a relatively small scale, Block Ness weighs in at about 60 lbs and involves a lot of forward planning.

“Once the robot is in the arena, you can’t touch it,” said fellow coach and science teacher Jason Milne.

“There have been years where they say, ‘Ready, set, go,’ and someone goes in to drive it. That round is done – you’re not allowed to go in.”

At the TCDSB contest on March 29, Block Ness fired pucks okay, but a new problem cropped up. Unlike the pucks they used in practice, the tournament pucks were unpainted and much harder to slide out of the loader.

Richard Erikson-Lin, a Grade 9 student, said he’s learned a lot in his first year. From September to March, the twice-a-week club sketched out paddle, slider, and air jet systems before settling on the current build – a lot of time at the drawing board.

“We learned cooperation,” said Erikson-Lin. “I learned to really respect these guys.”

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