The drive to eliminate what members of the Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition called a “bitter taste” starts Saturday morning when the team competes in the Tennessee Valley Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology event at Calhoun Community College.
“It wasn’t that we were not trying last year, we just got undone and that taste has been with most of us for a year,” DARC chief executive officer Savannah Blankenship said about the team’s performance in Auburn last year.
The road back to the South’s BEST Regional Robotics Competition at Auburn University begins at Calhoun, where the top two teams advance.
DARC — a robotics team of students from Austin and Decatur high schools — has dominated the Calhoun event and earned a spot in the regionals at Auburn 16 of the past 17 years.
Their robot was the two-time defending regional champion last year in Auburn, but a disastrous performance stopped DARC from winning three consecutive regional titles, something no school has ever done.
“Time management was not good last year,” Austin High junior student and co-engineering officer Trey Jenkins said. “We were rushing things and we have eliminated that issue this year. We’ve been preparing for several months.”
To get back to Auburn, the team has to win the robot or marketing portion of Saturday’s event at Calhoun, said Sandra Sandlin, a robotics and cybersecurity teacher at Austin Junior High. She has been co-sponsor of the team for three years.
The theme for this year’s competition is “Off the Grid,” and DARC has designed and built a robot to rebuild the nation’s power grid following a natural disaster. Unlike previous competitions, the team had to prepare the robot to spend part of its time on the playing field autonomously.
“This is one of the most challenging competitions, but we’re prepared,” said Blankenship, who for almost two months has been making sure the marketing and engineering teams are on the same page.
She said the marketing team has to convince a panel of judges that DARC has designed the best robot to rebuild the power grid, and for team members to do so, they have to understand what is happening on the playing field.
“She’s been a great leader,” said Marque Laster, who with Petra Beaver is a co-head of the marketing team. “We understand our robot, and we’re ready to explain why we’re best suited for the challenge. We have not waited until the last minute as we did last year.”
DARC members, as they have historically done, would not talk about their strategy for the primary robot they named “Bat Boy” and the backup robot which is named “Side Kick.”
Jenkins said designing and constructing the robot’s arm was a challenge because it has to be able to pick up 6-by-6 boxes that represent power transformers on the playing field and ropes that are power lines.
“I can tell you we’re not behind schedule and we’re still testing for drivers,” he said, adding that the team is focused on its tasks.
The regional competition at Auburn — which is the end of the season for DARC because there is no national competition — is Dec. 7-8. If DARC makes it, the team will compete against more than 50 teams from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida.