Staff Reporter 

MLHS's Circuit Breakers head to competition

Goal is to once again reach the robotics world championships in Houston


Paul Delaney

Medical Lake's Circuit Breakers Team member Joshua Marsh deals with some wiring chores on the school's robot that will be involved in a variety of competitions this year.

The hope for Medical Lake's Circuit Breakers robotics team is that everything works at least as well as it did on the President's Day holiday, Feb. 19.

Working as they do, sometimes seven days a week, and hours they care not to really count, the Circuit Breakers were busily preparing - even on a day when the rest of the campus was vacant and quiet - for regional competition this weekend, March 2-3.

They travel to Clackamas, Ore., to put their most recent creation to work hoping to once again qualify for the world championships later this year.

The team was working on two different robots, but each with the same goal to both learn, and compete on the big world stage of FIRST Robotics which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

It's a mad dash that takes about six weeks beginning the first of the year.

In early January the global release of the official challenge is made. "This is the first time anyone knows what the challenge will be," advisor Dennis Schweikhardt said.

From there the builders have six weeks to craft a robot that will meet the challenge. "That means design, fabricate, build, program, test and then the 20th of February you put it in a giant plastic bag and seal it," Schweikhardt explained.

There is no opening that bag until its game time and everyone must wonder if everything will work as planned. "You have a few hours in the pits to do any testing or tuning and the next morning the competition begins," Schweikhardt said.

The challenge is issued via video and in this particular case the goal is to take a cube measuring about one foot by one foot and place it on different scales. There are three scales, two at 24 inches off the surface while the third is up about six feet.

An advantage which rewards more points it to have a robot capable of climbing to be able to grab on to a pipe and pull itself up which Medical Lake does.

This is all orchestrated by an electronic box programmed in Java by students. "Up until now we've used C++ and now we're moving into Java," Schweikhardt said, adding Java is somewhat easier to learn

An example of other uses of Java programming are in Android smart phones.

Student Lauren Saue-Fletcher, the Circuit Breakers CEO, explained the difference between Java and, perhaps, a more familiar coding language called HTML - or Hypertext Markup Language - which is the brains behind many websites.

Java is what she said was "action-based" which "talks" to a series of devices to make magic happen with the menagerie of metal, wires, switches and who knows what else.

"The hard thing with code with a big robot like this is there are a lot of things going on," club member and chief control officer Joshua Marsh said. Taking an intro to computer science class, Marsh said the group is now building apps and user interfaces often found on cell phones.

And all it takes is time - and of course, money.

Chase Wolfe, broke the time part down explaining they are approaching 700 hours building in just a two-week span. "You're looking at about 1,800 hours in the six weeks (to build from scratch)," Wolfe said. And that's a conservative number he said.

"Our normal schedule is 2:30 to 4:30 (p.m.) from Monday through Thursday and then Saturday from like 9 (a.m.) to 3 (p.m.)," Saue-Fletcher said.

But that's just the bare minimum, as normally they go well past 4:30. And that does not include activities to try to promote the club at events like Founders Day, outreach in the business community through Greater Spokane Incorporated and working with future robotics fans through camps.

All of that helps raise awareness, and hopefully money. A robot will cost about $4,000 for the parts and regional travel also hits $4,000. "Typically for us to register for the competition season we're looking at $11,000," Wolfe said.

Should they qualify for world championships, registration alone is $5,000, plus another $15,000 to get the drive team to its destination, Houston, Texas.

But there's a payoff in the form of numerous college scholarships, Wolfe said. "They typically hand out about $50 million worth." Saue-Fletcher, for instance, earned some of the cash and will use what she's learned and attend Stanford University this fall.

The team finished 32nd out of 67 teams of the Hopper Division in Houston last April. Overall, they were 192nd out of 6,700 schools from around the world.

Paul Delaney can be reached at


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