The challenges of coaxing a small, quirky robot along a ping-pong-table-sized course were readily apparent at Saturday’s Worker Bots contest.

Held at Virginia Western Community College, Worker Bots was the 11th annual autonomous robot competition put on by the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It attracted 29 high school and 17 community college teams, plus a crowd of onlookers. Groans, laughter and cheers greeted the mishaps and triumphs of a fleet of mechanized miniatures, most of which could be garaged in a shoebox.

“This is our vacuum robot,” said Nathan Kellner, a home-schooled 16-year-old from Roanoke who entered the contest as part of an engineering class he’s taking at Virginia Western.

As part of a two-person team called We’re JK, Kellner and J.J. John, an also-home-schooled 14-year-old from Roanoke County, had designed and assembled a sort of aardvark-bot with a ping pong ball-suctioning trunk made from a cardboard core from a paper-towel roll. Like other contest entries, their creation was built atop a Boe-Bot, a notoriously finicky robot kit with two drive wheels, each with a battery-powered motor.

“It’s difficult to make it go straight because one servo is typically more powerful than the other,” Kellner said.

The overall goal of the contest was for the robots, operating on programs rather than remote controls, to collect ping-pong balls and transport them to pockets on the corner of the course, all within a time limit. The event had a honey bee theme, with the ping pong balls called “honey” for the robots to collect, and the contest tables overlaid with a hive-like hexagon grid made of black tape lines.

Some teams had programmed their robots to go certain distances, then turn, travel, and turn again. But the We’re JK bot had sensors that let it track the contest tables’ tape lines. Kellner and John had taken a points hit for an oversized entry — their cardboard trunk needed to be long enough, they said, to cover the distance between the tape lines and suck up any balls it found. A fan, powered by its own set of batteries, created the suction to pull the balls through the tube and into a plastic storage bin carried by the robot.

The tournament featured five rounds, but not all teams had robots that could perform all five tasks. Having finished two of the three trials in which they planned to compete, the We’re JK teammates wore matching broad grins.

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