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Mr. T might pity the fool who tangles with him, if Mr. T could feel pity.

He can't. And besides, Mr. T was having a bad air day on Thursday morning.

His air compressor wasn't working very well because of a wiring problem.

"We're always running into issues with this," said Hellgate High School teacher Chris Jacaruso, as his students fumbled around with Mr. T's electronic innards in Hellgate's industrial arts wing.

Mr. T is a robot, of course - quite Mohawkless, muscleless and mouthless. So even if he could pity a fool, he wouldn't: The A-team of Hellgate High School students who built and programmed him are a little too nice to make their robot a bully.

Plus, it's right there in the rule book, said Hellgate junior Josh Sanz: "You can't attack the other robots."

Sanz and 14 other students, mostly from Hellgate, are members of this year's Missoula Robotics Team, which built this little 112-pound, four-wheeled, battery-powered, Wi-Fi-controlled mobile beast of Plexiglas, steel and wood.

Last March, Mr. T and his creators, led by Hellgate applied-technology teacher Jacaruso, competed in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) regional robotics competition and walked away with a big prize.

They entered as the Missoula Robotics Team: MRT. Or, Mr. T.

Get it?

Cute name, yes. But not cute at all is Mr. T's construction and programming, which required the brainpower of all these students, a few adult advisers and a cool $13,000 in cash.

And all of that, just to play a few games of robot soccer.

On most days, Mr. T is functioning fully, but not Thursday morning. Somewhere in its complex mesh of cables, chains, wires and its power distribution scheme, something was amiss.

Still, the students were able to give a working demonstration of Mr. T's abilities to climb over obstacles, move in any direction and - most important - boot a soccer ball.

The latter skill is accomplished with air compression, which thrusts into motion Mr. T's metallic foot, resulting in a kick that can't quite bend a ball like Beckham, but has plenty of oomph behind it.

From March 18-20, MRT and its Mr. T competed in the FIRST regional robotics competition in Salt Lake City's Huntsman Center (home of the Utah Jazz), and walked away in fifth place overall among 33 teams, while garnering the most points for a rookie robotics team.

"We were really excited to get the top-seeded rookie award," said Hellgate sophomore Connor Glynn.

"Hey, we were happy just to have it running," added sophomore Ian Marxer.

The competition, called "Breakaway," pits two teams of three robots each in a miniature soccer field complete with obstacles to drive over, and goals to shoot at.

Over the course of two days, points are accumulated by scoring goals, winning games and performing robotic tricks, such as using a robotic arm to hang from a metal structure.

Mr. T didn't have that ability - but that didn't stop him from taking fifth place.

***

FIRST is a nonprofit organization that has hosted these competitions since 1992. Sponsored by NASA, Microsoft and 3,300 other corporations and government agencies, its goal is to develop excitement about and skills in engineering and robotics, utilizing every vocational skill from woodworking to computer programming.

Churches, schools and other organizations are free to enter in various categories in the dozens of regional competitions throughout the world, including youth events that feature Legos. Every year, tens of thousands of students enter.

The high school competition, which MRT entered, costs $6,500 just for the entry fee and equipment to build the robot. Double that cost to reach the final product.

When that big box arrives, teams have exactly six weeks to build their metal machine and ship it off for inspection.

Freshman Nathan Bronec was a little intimidated when the box showed up in early January.

"I thought, ‘How in the hell is this going to work? It's just a box of stuff,' " he said.

Still, MRT pressed on. From Jan. 9 to Feb. 23, they met three times a week to design, program and build their robot, following the thick rule book that comes with the contest.

It helped that some of the adult mentors had some engineering experience. Still, it was mostly a student-run enterprise, and in the end Mr. T looked darned intimidating.

But would it run?

Yes, of course. Sort of.

"We got it running about 10 p.m. the night before," said Nathan.

***

Once shipped, the robot is inspected. And once the team arrives, it has to modify and design errors. It gets one day to get the robot in tip-top competition shape.

On MRT's first practice round, Mr. T "tipped over in the first 10 seconds," said Nathan.

More modifications were needed.

The two days of competition included nine full games of 3-on-3 robot soccer.

A robotics team from Simms, outside Great Falls, took third overall and also won the Quality Award. That punched their ticket to the FIRST nationals in Atlanta last month.

While technically a competition, the event is geared more toward cooperation. Robots are constantly breaking down, losing parts, losing power. And other teams step forward to lend a hand or a wrench or a wireless router, especially when they're in the same soccer game.

"There is competition," said Jacaruso, who last fielded a robotics team four years ago, "but it's really just a big brotherhood."

The four Hellgate boys interviewed for this story - Connor Glynn, Ian Marxer, Nathan Bronec, Josh Sanz - all said they're joining the team again next year.

"I want to be an engineer, and this is a really good experience," said Josh.

We pity the fool who misses such an opportunity.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly @missoulian.com.

 

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