March 01. 2013 9:32PM

Bright minds descend on Manchester for FIRST competition

New Hampshire Union Leader

Manchester Memorial's Zachary Marais of the Cruisin' Crusaders adjusts his team's robot during the FIRST Robotics BAE Systems Granite State Regional at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER -- High school students scrambled like members of a NASCAR pit crew, tweaking their machines for maximum performance in the opening round of the annual FIRST Robotics Competition on Friday.

The tech-savvy teens spent the last six weeks designing, building and often rebuilding their robots while trying to balance strategy within the limits of physics and engineering. The 45 teams came up with a wide variety of contraptions competing at the Verizon Wireless Arena during the Granite State Regional Friday and today. Every round seemed to reveal a new glitch.

"We're right there. Another match or two and we should be doing exactly what we want to," said Drake Parker, production manager for defending regional champion Gilford High School team. "We're just working out the little bugs right now."

FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - added a new twist to this year's competition, dubbed the "Ultimate Ascent."

Instead of propelling balls at the targets for points, plastic disks like the common Frisbee were flying about the 27-by-54-foot "field" with a series of targets at each end. The higher the target, the more points the teams received for successfully getting a disk through the narrow rectangles. Each round started with a 30-second period when the robots had to operate autonomously before the team could take to the remote controls.

There were also a pair of 10-foot pyramids with three tiers worth 10, 20 or 30 points at the very top. Climbing the pyramid rungs can eat up a chunk of time during the 2 minute, 15 second rounds, so the common strategy Friday was to score as much as possible with the flying disks then guide the robots to the pyramids at the end for a final push toward the top.

Some made it, others missed out by a fraction of an inch when a corner of the machine was touching the arena surface. Officials dropped to their hands and knees to confirm whether the entire apparatus had indeed cleared the ground and successfully reached the first tier.

Manchester Memorial High School's "Cruisin' Crusaders" focused on pyramid points during the design and building process, but had to designed and planned around getting pyramid points, but were forced into a major overhaul on Thursday.

"We had one designed to go up to the third tier. It didn't quite work, so we scratched it and we threw together another one," senior Sean McGuire said. "It was kind of difficult, but everyone got together, put our heads together and were like 'That's what we need to do - and immediately."

The Central team opted against spending the time developing a way to launch the disks accurately, choosing instead to "dump" the disks into the lowest goal a few feet off the ground, rack up as many points as possible there and then climb.

Other teams took the disk route and came up with some creative ways to launch the objects through the goals. Gilford used a small wheel on a flat surface on top of the robot to spin the disk through a guide that narrowed to increase the force and spin. The Screaming Eagles' machine was on target during the fifth match Friday, firing off four or five straight through the mid-range goals. That was tremendous progress from an earlier match, when the team lost communication with the robot and was unable to control it remotely.

"It's been up and down," Gilford co-captain Dominic Jude said. The competition rules were announced worldwide on Jan. 5 and teams had until Friday to create a machine that fit all the specifications. Gilford's team lost valuable work time to five snow days, but was able to make it up - barely.

Parker said he spent part of Thursday night drilling holes where it wouldn't affect the strength of the structure, which was narrowly above the 120-pound weight limit. By Friday, it weighed in at 119.7 pounds.

"We were working on this some late nights," Parker said.