Thursday, April 11 dawned on the Botetourt 4-H Robotics team early as members gathered to travel to George Mason University to compete in the FIRST Chesapeake District Championships. Just two days earlier the team thought their competition for the 2019 season was over. A last-minute invitation to the exclusive competition was an honor and the Botetourt County 4-H members from both county middle and high schools rose to the challenge.

The team’s robot, nicknamed “Frederick,” was designed to address the 2019 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) challenge – Destination: Deep Space. Teams were challenged to attach disc-shaped “hatches” to a cargo ship and two rockets, as well as insert large orange balls, “cargo,” into the field pieces to score points. Finally, robots can climb onto a 7-inch or 13-inch platform at the end of each round’s 25 minutes for additional points.

Team members designed the robot beginning January 5, with a world-wide reveal of the season’s challenge. In just six weeks, the 17 students on the Botetourt 4-H Robotics team had to design, craft and test the robot. The final robot was able to pick up and place hatches with a lift system, shoot cargo balls from a floor-based shooter, and use pneumatic pistons to climb onto the 7-inch platform.

The Botetourt 4-H Robotics team, Team 3939 in the FIRST program, began their competition season joining 31 other teams in Portsmouth on March 16 and 17. While a five-person drive team steered the robot in a series of qualifying matches, other members of the team were busy volunteering, scouting out the competition, and talking with a variety of event judges. Although robots are the most visible aspect of FRC competitions, teams are also judged on things like creativity, safety, entrepreneurship, community Involvement and Team Spirit. At the end of the two-day competition, Team 3939 was ranked 17th out of 37 teams, and was presented with the Safety Award, which is sponsored by Underwriters Laboratories.

Just two weeks later, the team traveled to Blacksburg to compete again, this time facing 33 other teams. With a focused game strategy, the drive team was able to advance much farther into the competition at this event. When the event playoffs were ready to begin, Team 3939 was the captain of one of eight three-team alliances prepared to battle for the event title. Working together with Team 3274, Salem-based Spartan Robotics, and Team 539, Richmond-based Titan Robotics, the 8th ranked alliance advanced to the semi-finals.

Then the call came to invite Team 3939 to compete at the FIRST Chesapeake District Championships, filling the place of a team which was unable to attend. The team jumped at the chance to continue to test their robot which had been performing so well during the season. The Championship was a much larger challenge, pitting 58 teams from across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. against each other in three days of fierce competition.

After some striking offensive and defensive performances, as well as some terribly close losses, Team 3939 ended the competition in 44th place. The team then joined others in the stands of EagleBank Arena to cheer on the final eight alliances, including teams from Christiansburg, Charlottesville, and Cedar Bluff. In the final awards ceremony, Team 3939 was surprised again, this time being honored with the Innovation in Control Award, which is sponsored by Rockwell Automation. The award citation read: “Full and precise drive control is the foundation of this team’s success. They stand tough against aggressive defense, while remaining nimble enough to deliver a clean offense. The unique swerve drive system carried them to the top of our charts.”

Botetourt 4-H Robotics’ success in the Destination: Deep Space season was supported sponsorship from: NASA, Rockwell Automation, TORC Robotics, Bank of Botetourt, Lawrence Transportation, Precision Steel, JL Computers, Dark Moon Cards and Games, and Botetourt Office Supplies.

Team 3939 welcomes all students in grades 7-12, interested in engineering, design, math, business skills, graphic design, and leadership.

Team 3939 Robotics, previously James River Robotics, formed in 2012 with nine members and two mentors. Since then, the team has grown to 17 students from Central Academy Middle School, Read Mountain Middle School, James River High School, and Lord Botetourt High School. The Robotics team started building this year’s robot on January 5 and had to complete the it by February 19. Success in early competitions qualifies the students to go to the FIRST Championship, the biggest robotics competition in FIRST, located in Detroit, Mich.

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is an organization devoted to promoting STEM through sportsmanlike competition known as “Gracious Professionalism.” Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, Woodie Flowers, and a professor of engineering at MIT, FIRST has grown from a small organization in New England with a few hundred teams to an international phenomenon with over 38,000 teams and almost half a million members. Each year FIRST designs a new challenge for teams to solve, requiring them to rethink their approach each season.