VEX robot wars: Ocado Technology sponsors Shark Robotics

We are happy to announce that we will be sponsoring both the junior and senior Shark Robotics teams at Stanborough School, a secondary school only a stone’s throw away from our Hatfield head office.

Shark Robotics was founded in 2008 to offer students an extracurricular activity of a different kind, in addition to the sports and performing arts clubs already up and running. Started by the current Head of IT, Sahbi Benzid, the team initially got involved with LEGO robotics, where students used the LEGO Mindstorm kit and software to program robots of their own design. During the team’s early years, the students competed in the first ever LEGO League Competition, but this left some of the older students eager to test their skills further and encounter more challenging engineering projects. This was when Shark Robotics first encountered VEX.

VEX Robotics has grown from a passion project in a garage to a global movement, and now provides educational and competitive robotics to 22,000 schools and universities (that’s over a million students) across more than 40 countries. From these products stemmed the competitions, designed to bring robotics to life for children around the world. Each year VEX designs a new game to challenge their international following.

Shark Robotics has been participating in VEX competitions for the past eight years. Each year sees a new robot and a new game design, and in April 2017 the senior team was crowned National Champions, qualifying them to compete in the VEX World Championships in Louisville the following month. Here they competed against 1,400 teams from over 30 nations worldwide during the week-long event - the Hertfordshire based school has now broken all previous UK records.

The senior team at the time, who now act as Shark Robotics mentors, had honed their skills during their years competing with VEX, and had over time developed their approach to robotics design, which ultimately carried them all the way through to the world championships. I spoke to Jack Byrne, Shark Robotics mentor, to find out more:

“We adopted far more sensors than in previous years, and spent more time programming powerful frameworks and abstractions than ever before. Although this approach requires a significantly higher initial time investment, it results in far fewer competition-eve catastrophes and in-game breakages. We resolved to build a robot that was effectively bulletproof in its ability to withstand anything that fierce gameplay may throw at it.”

The robot in question incorporated a four motor drive, a six motor lift and a two motor claw. The dual lift system helped the design to succeed in last years ‘Starstruck’ game and the team’s use of sensors helped prevent against overextension of the lifting mechanism.

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Shark Robotics are now in the process of organising their own regional competition, taking place this month. Stanborough School’s experience of nationals and world championships puts them in a great position to start hosting their own events. The winners of the Stanborough competition will qualify for the UK national championships later in the year.

VEX supports and encourages regional competitions, but it is up to the hosts to organise them, so this is a big undertaking for the secondary school. This year, VEX contestants have to stay ‘In the zone’; played on a twelve foot squared pitch, two alliances, red and blue, compete in matches where the aim is to score points by stacking cones in various zones. Each match consists of a fifteen second autonomous period, where robots can be pre-programmed to stack cones, followed by a minute and forty-five seconds of driver-controlled play.

We met with the teams to hear more about their progress so far and provide an insight into our own robotics projects - a taste of what working in the robotics industry is really like. Dr. Graham Deacon, team leader of our robotics research group, gave the students  a presentation on the SecondHands project: a joint effort from Ocado Technology and Europe’s leading universities to create a warehouse maintenance robot, to provide a real world example of robotics in action.

“It was really interesting to see all of the robotics at a real company and to meet real engineers." Luke Barron, year 8.

"SecondHands taught us about the many different ways to handle problems. The robot is very innovative."Joshua Imafidon, year 8.

The initiative and enthusiasm of the students, who ranged from 12 to 16, was really refreshing, and it was great to see how their designs had developed.

The Shark Robotics senior and junior teams are currently in the process of building robots capable of taking on the challenges presented by this year’s VEX competition. We can’t wait to see the reveal of the final designs when we attend the Welwyn Regional competition later this month!

With the ever present skills gap threatening STEM-related industries, it is now more important than ever to focus our efforts on the next generation; fostering problem-solving skills and kindling a thirst to learn and test ideas. Unless significant change is brought about, there won’t be enough pioneering young graduates entering these industries to meet the global demand.

It is for this reason that we got involved with education initiatives designed to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in STEM industries. For example, we’ve started Code For Life, an initiative with over 100,000 registered users worldwide, designed to help children learn how to code in a fun and intuitive way. Our involvement with Stanborough School will now spread our values locally as well as internationally.

We are excited to support Shark Robotics in their development and can’t wait to see the results of the regionals! Watch this space...

george smith