Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Otis is on his way to Houston, Texas, in a special travel compartment all his own: a giant wooden crate specially crafted to hold his 120-pound frame.

His human partners won't be there quite as quickly, but at least they're traveling a little more comfortably, thanks to sponsors who helped SWARM get to the FIRST robotics world championship next week in Houston, Texas.

SWARM stands for South West Albany Robotics Maniacs, and FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It's an international youth organization that operates competitions in robotics, Lego robotics and other technology challenges.

SWARM is made up of high school students from South Albany, West Albany and Oregon Connections Academy.

Team members named their robot Otis after Elisha Otis, who invented the safety device that powers the modern elevator. SWARM's Otis uses an elevator-like contraption to lift yellow "power cubes" to the top of a 7-foot scale to score points in this year's FIRST robotics competition.

The team earned second place last month at both of the two qualifying rounds, in Wilsonville and Lake Oswego, then went on to place 19th of 64 teams at the April 6-7 Pacific Northwest regional competition in Portland. 

The combination put SWARM 15th of 154 Pacific Northwest teams, which was enough to earn an invitation to the world competition. It's the first time Albany has been represented on that particular stage since 2010.

Fifteen team members plus another nine chaperones, parents and mentors fly out Tuesday. 

The competition takes place Wednesday through Saturday, April 18-21. It encompasses FIRST Robotics contests and also FIRST Lego League and First Tech Challenge. Mark Gullickson, who teaches third grade at Oak Grove School, is traveling with SWARM as a judge for the FLL Core Values division.

More than 400 teams are registered so far for the competition, including competitors from Turkey, China, Brazil, Mexico and Canada, among others. "It's a chance to meet teams from all over the world," said SWARM mentor Jim McDaniel, whose son, Alex, is on the build team and the navigator on the drive team.

SWARM mentor Robin Hobbensiefken, whose son, River, drives Otis, said the team is particularly looking forward to connecting with an Israeli team called BumbleB. Like SWARM, the team has a bee theme, and both the shape and function of its robot are almost identical to Otis.

Plenty of companies interested in engineering will also be on hand for students to meet and talk with. Exhibitors at the Innovation Faire are expected to include representatives from Boeing, NASA, Disney, Texas Instruments and the U.S. Air Force.

Albany's team isn't going into the championship with any particular expectations, Hobbensiefken said. The plan: "Stick to what we're doing and do it well. Try to be more consistent."

It's worked so far. This year's game involves working in alliances of three teams to stack power cubes on both the 7-foot "scale" in the center of the playing field and on floor-level "switches" on either side. In the last 30 seconds of the game, the robot can "levitate," hanging from the frame of the center scale for extra points.

But early on, SWARM decided to focus more on lifting the cubes to the scale and less on levitation, Hobbensiefken said.

"We changed a lot of our design procedure this time," he said. "We also focused on doing one thing and doing it well before we branched out to do other things."

Participating in FIRST Robotics involves a great deal more than the competition, however, the mentors agreed.

Team members practice math, physics, coding, engineering, computer-aided design and drafting, and the physical mechanics of building a robot just to ready an entry for the competition. They also have to work on fundraising, publicity and public speaking skills. They must act with "gracious professionalism," especially during alliance play. And they must do all of this as a team.

"Building consensus is tough in any business," McDaniel said. "It's a good experience, or opportunity, to be exposed to that."

It takes upwards of $10,000 to build and outfit a robot for each year's competition, and more to make sure the team can travel. Mentors said SWARM is grateful to the sponsors who made the trip to Houston possible, and to donors who give via GoFundMe or the Team 957 website at, both of which are still welcoming contributions.

"It is an expensive program," McDaniel said. "It's a good one, but it's an expensive one." 


Load comments