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Tech Park robotics team prepares for competition

By Wes Tomlinson

For the Enquirer

Michael Schraff Jr. has already learned auto tech and welding in the Morgan County Schools Technology Park, but this year, the Brewer High senior is learning another set of skills. He’s building and programming robots for the robotics team and will get to compete in regionals this year after the pandemic canceled the competition in 2021.

The team has just completed building one robot, which team members will program Saturday, and they plan to finish a second one around the time of the regionals, set for April 6-9 at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville.

“I’ve had my eye on robotics for quite some time,” Schraff said. “I went to other things first, like auto-tech and welding, but this has been more eye-opening in a lot of ways.”

Schraff said learning how to program robots and understanding the science behind building and operating them is invaluable because he can bring those skills to the workforce, along with the skills he developed in auto tech and welding.

The robots are powered by a 12-volt motorcycle battery, which gives them power for about 15 minutes. The Morgan County team’s finished robot has swerve-drive wheels that give it all-wheel drive capability, and each wheel has a 360-degree turn radius. The team’s robot still under construction is a simple tank-drive robot, with tank treads that allow it to go forward and backward.

Robots in the competition will play against each other in a series of short games.

Charter Nicholson, the school system’s robotics instructor, said his 18-member team will use the swerve-drive robot in the competition and will use the tank-drive robot as a backup if the swerve-drive malfunctions.

Brewer High senior Robert Morgan, in his third year at the Technology Park, brings a knack for building and designing to the team.

“I’ve had previous experience with workshop stuff, mainly just wood working,” Morgan said. “I always found building and tearing apart computers pretty fun, so that made me want to join the robotics team.”

Morgan said he had developed his interest in robotics while he was in middle school by watching students build robots out of LEGO blocks to compete in LEGO League robotics, which is the robotics league for elementary and middle school students.

“I actually tried to sign up for that, but I was too late,” Morgan said. “Me and my friend started our own rookie team just for fun, and then I was told about the Morgan County robotics team and how I could join when I got to high school.”

Morgan advanced so much in his first year with the robotics team that he started to guide and help students on the team during his second year. He is responsible for designing the robots this year, using his drafting skills.

Nicholson is in his first year as a robotics instructor for Morgan County Schools after learning about robotics while in the U.S. Army.

“I got my start in robotics in 2010 when I joined the military,” said Nicholson, who graduated from Brewer High in 2007. “The previous instructor, Tim Sharp, did a very good job of setting this program up, and I’m just trying to build on his success here.”

Before coming to Technology Park, which is based at the Brewer campus, in September, Nicholson worked as an industrial maintenance engineer at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Huntsville. He has also supervised the training department at Mercedes-Benz in Huntsville since 2017.

“I’ve programmed robots all over the southeastern United States,” Nicholson said.

Each match in the regional competition lasts three minutes, and Nicholson said each team will compete in five or six matches each day.

There will be 47 schools competing at regionals.

Winners at regionals will advance to the national robotics competition at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston April 20-23.

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