By Gari Voss
Fennville Public Schools has offered robotics extracurriculars to students in grades 6-12 for years. Robotics have taken the front stage in the past, but for the 2022-23 school year, an Aerial Drone team was added to the lineup.
Coach Richard Lowing discovered that the Robotics Education and Competition (REC) Foundation not only supported robotics but also drones, the idea of fielding a team was taken to the students. When the students learned that senior Francis Garcia was planning on pursuing an aerospace engineering degree, the decision was simple. Francis had been involved in every level of robotics since middle school, and was ready for a new challenge.
Since October, RoboHawks 2022-23 has had two robotics teams preparing for the Vex Robotics Competition (VRC) called Spin Up, while the drone team has practiced for the REC Aerial Drone Competition (RADC) mission called Blackout. These “games” require hours of work to build the machines and the practice courses in order to become proficient at moving the machines through the required tasks.
Senior and team captain Francis Garcia, sophomore and pilot Radley Bouma, freshmen and copilot Hugh Lowing, and freshman, programmer and spotter Zyon Martinez jumped at the opportunity to compete on the Drone team. Coached by Lowing, the foursome of rookies examined the requirements for competitions and began intensive preparations.
By December, the team had created a course with the elements that allowed the programming and practicing for upcoming competitions. Thanks to the Pearl Alternative High School, space was provided for the Fennville team’s practice course.
Returning from the holiday break, the “Drone Killers”, as the RoboHawk Aerial Drone Team named themselves, began working in earnest to prepare for the 2-day competition at Kettering University on Jan. 28-29, 2023.
On January 28, 2023, the Drone Killers won their first two matches with decisive scores. The next three matches did not go as well. This led to being ranked 15th after the qualification matches while receiving a #8 seed alliance captain.
During the seed alliance matches, the Drone Killers won their first round only to come up against the #1 seed alliance. Though they lost their quarterfinal match, they were tied for the second highest scores in the Autonomous Flight Skills competition.
The second day of the tournament brought some ups and downs. All morning, the RoboHawks Drone Killers held a second place ranking. Then technical difficulties raised its head in the 4th match, and the drone did some unhealthy aerial somersaults before crashing at the beginning of the match. The team dropped to 6th place before winning their 5th match. The 6th match against higher ranked teams ended in a loss in a hard-fought battle against the #1 ranked drone. With a record of 4-2, the team ended with a 5th place ranking.
The day was not over as the Drone Killers were the 4th seed alliance captain, but fell 55-56 in the quarterfinals. The Fennville team had led the Autonomous Skills Challenge until the last team of the day pushed them to second place with a solid 3rd attempt.
By the end of the competition at Kettering University, this team of rookies had attained a 12th place ranking in the world for the Autonomous Skills challenge and 3rd in the Michigan Region. That led to an invitation to compete in the World Championships.
“With the great and consistent performance at both of the Kettering University Aerial Drone Competition tournaments and placing 2nd & 4th in the Autonomous Flight Skills Challenge, the RoboHawks Drone Killers have qualified for and have been invited to compete at the Aerial Drone Competition World Championships!” wrote Coach Lowing.
In addition to the ranking, the team received a Judges Award because of their teamwork and the communication skills demonstrated during the competition.
As reported by Mitchell Boarman, Lowing stated, “[The judges] were very impressed… with their interviewing skills and how they were motivating other teams. They were out there cheering other teams on, helping other teams, going out and giving them a hand.”
For Worlds, the RoboHawks Drone Killers will compete in the regional Aerial Drone Competition Mission 2023: Blackout. Simultaneously, other events will occur in West Virginia, Texas and Mississippi. The Michigan Aerial Drone Competition Championship: Ingenuity will return to Kettering University on May 13-14, 2023.
World competitions challenge teams 2-fold to navigate through a 24×24 foot field. In the Piloting Teamwork matches, there will be two alliances – red and blue – with two teams each competing in 2-minute pilot-operated matches. Here the two opposing alliances will attempt to outscore each other by owning goals, scoring bonus balls and ending the match on a landing pad or in the alliance blackout zone.
The Autonomous Flight Skills matches feature one team that has one minute of autonomous drone operation. In short, the drones are pre-coded by the teams and fly without a pilot at the controls. Teams earn points during lift off, navigation through arches and keyhole gates, moving balls from the start lane to targets, and ending on a landing pad or in the blackout zone.
Even before the World Championship in May, Fennville High School will co-host the West Michigan Aerial Drone Competition on March 11, 2023 with Caledonia and Hudsonville Christian. The day for up to 26 teams will begin with qualification matches. The afternoon will feature alliance selection, elimination matches and the finals. The Excellence Award, Autonomous Flight Champion, Flight Operations Award, Tournament Champions x2 and Tournament Finalists x2 will be presented along with an Inspire Award, Programming Award and Judges Award.
The first year of aerial drone competition may have begun with the crashing of a drone, but it has proven to be a wonderful success for this rookie team of Fennville High School students.