Watch out, world. Here comes Team SHARP.

Team member Billy Sullivan, a senior at Sewickley Academy says, “I’ve always had a passion for building crazy things and seeing how they worked.” As one of 19 high-school students from 10 different schools on Team SHARP, Billy got to do just that as the team captured first-place in March at the Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

That triumph is sending the team to St. Louis for the FIRST Robotics World Championship April 23-26.

In the world of robotics, it’s a very big deal and a thrill for the Sarah Heinz House on the North Side where Team SHARP is based.

Getting to the World Championship was immensely challenging, drawing on and building numerous skills from each team member. But most are like Billy, with a passion for building crazy things–and the persistence to make them work.

The winning team.

The winning team.

Both the regional and local competitions put robots on what looks like a combination volleyball and soccer field. Each team had six weeks to build a robot to meet the year’s challenge, which was released early in January. For 2014, the robot had to pass and catch a two-foot-wide exercise ball, score goals in corner baskets and high nets, and even play defense. There’s a beam strung across the middle of the field where the top of a volleyball net would be, where the robot can pass the ball for more points.

After finishing their robot, the team must seal it into a bag and ship it to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition site – where they will have a pit, a la NASCAR, to make last-minute additions and repairs. Each competition has about a dozen elimination trials, after which the best teams are invited to choose two other teams as allies for the final match.

Billy Sullivan has been doing robotics all through his school years, starting a Lego team in grade school and robotics teams at both middle and senior schools at Sewickley. He’s been involved in “every process” of robot design, he says, “from thinking how to solve the problem to actually building it and programming it.

“I still wanted to do something bigger,” he says. “That’s when I found the Sarah Heinz House.”

Five years from scratch to the finals

Team SHARP at work on their robot for FIRST.

Team SHARP at work on their robot for FIRST.

Team SHARP — Sarah Heinz Advanced Robotics Program – is just one of many robotics programs here, directed by Christine Nguyen, who is also the team coach. The team also has five mentors with experience in robot-related fields, such as mechanical engineering, “who do most of the communication with the kids about what won’t work, what might work,” Nguyen says, “although we have a strong policy that kids have to do all the hands-on work.” It’s important that the program leaves the kids feeling “that they are the ones building the robot, that they trust one another, that they are a family.

“I’m lucky to have very dedicated kids,” she adds. “Half of the kids show up six nights a week during the build seasons. When I talk to other coaches, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

The SHARP team meets and works on robots year-round. “I really enjoy it,” says Billy. “I come from school and I get to just build and not think of anything but the robot. I joke around and just concentrate on the robot. I treat school as my job and I think of going to Sarah Heinz House as a break in my day.”

This is the team’s fifth year. “Our first year, we really struggled,” Nguyen recalls. SHARP put a robot on the field, but it didn’t move. “Our second year wasn’t much better.”

That’s the year Billy Sullivan joined. He recalls helping to build part of one year’s robot–a mini-bot that deployed from the main robot, attaching to a pole on the field and climbing it for extra points at FIRST. “We had trouble getting onto the pole,” Billy recalls. “Another robot would always end up hitting us, and we’d be freaking out. So it worked–just not during the competition.”

The six-week build, says teammate Raina Oravec–an 11th grader from Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in her first year on the team–“is really intense. Everybody is flying through stuff as quickly as possible and hoping it works.”

“This year we felt much better than during any other year,” Billy says. “We had a robot that worked a week ahead of when we had to bag it. I don’t know if we’ve ever been in a position where we weren’t adding stuff and building stuff at the competition.”