How do you make a robot throw Frisbees?
That was what 1,000 students from 53 high school teams tried to figure out Saturday as they competed in the Sacramento regional Ultimate Ascent robotics competition at UC Davis.
"This is a sport of the mind," said James Beck, the regional director for FIRST For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology the competition's organizer.
This year, participants had to make their robots accept, store, then shoot as many Frisbees into their goals as possible in 2 1/2 minutes. The team with the most points wins.
For more than six hours, the teams and their supporters descended on the UC Davis ARC Pavilion, turning the sports arena into robotics galore.
Six winners, including two from the Sacramento area, advanced to the world competition in St. Louis next month.
Roseville's Woodcreek High School team, the Robowolves, won the Rookie All-Star Award. The Circuit Breakers, a team representing the El Dorado Union High School District, was also one of the regional winners. Both teams will be Missouri-bound.
Technical difficulties derailed other entrants.
"We got close. We gave it our all," Robert Bruffett, a student on the Hiram Johnson High School robotics team, said after the squad narrowly lost.
Bruffett attributed their loss to a malfunctioning "c-rio," an electronic device that controls the robot's movements. "It got unplugged, we fixed it, but then a chip got into it," he said.
The teams use various devices to maneuver their robots, including a laptop and a video game joystick. The robots operate in teams of three and try to stop the opposing force from scoring sometimes going head-to-head to achieve that.
At the end, the robots can climb on top of a jungle gym to score extra points.
"We've had police departments come to our students to get their advice on robots," Beck said. "They are learning skills to solve real world problems."
The robots, however, don't come cheap. Teams in such competitions can spend upward of $50,000 to buy supplies and for competition fees, according to Beck.
Steve Harvey, a math teacher at Da Vinci High School in Davis, is the lead coach for the team. He said his team spent $3,600 on the robot, building it over six weeks starting in January.
For teammate Dana Natov of the Davis team, the robotics competition proved extremely valuable.
"I figured out what I wanted to do," the 18-year-old said. "I want to be an electrical engineer."
Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.