Hitting the mark

Robotics team leveling sights on victory

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version.

Behind the red door of a red brick house that shielded them from the burning September heat, 12 teenagers huddled around a computer discussing the mechanics of a shipping hub. 

The 12 constitute the Mark X robotics team, started by brothers Aryan and Arnav Damle––one a current freshman at University of North Texas, the other a junior at Coppell High School––and CHS junior Adarsh Goura. That September day, they were studying the prompt presented by the 2021 FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC): the future of transportation. 

“When FIRST releases the challenge, we have to design a new robot from scratch,” said Arnav, builder and lead computer-aided design (CAD) designer. “We use software to put the parts together virtually and essentially create a set of instructions to build it in real life.”

According to the FIRST website, competing teams in the 2021-22 season must “re-imagine faster, more reliable, inclusive and sustainable transportation innovations that better connect and grow communities and economies around the world.

For Mark X, FTC team #16272, the challenge took shape in weekly meetings at their coach Hema Damle’s house, where the team would brainstorm their path forward. 

The months-long season ahead would lead Mark X through a series of competitions, each one divided into two events: the robot game and the judging presentation. 

The robot game takes place in a span of only two and a half minutes. In the first 30 seconds, the robot performs only with the code the team has written, without any manual interference, and attempts to grab and queue up cubes and spheres in three different levels of containers. In the next minute and a half––the Tele-Op period––the robot performs entirely with manual instruction. In the final 30 seconds––the endgame period––the driver controls the robot in an attempt to score the most points. 

The 15-minute judging presentation concludes the competitions by giving teams a chance to show off what they have accomplished throughout the season, including community outreach displayed through an engineering portfolio, a 16-page document explaining the team’s building and programming journey throughout the season. The team presents for five minutes and answers questions from the judges for their remaining time. 

But before the team could advance to competition, the robot had to be built. 

Over the next few weeks, they transferred the plans into Fusion 360, a CAD software, to virtually plan how the parts of the robot would move together. Then, the parts were ordered and the building process began. 

Throughout the build, the team would reach out to numerous mentors for advice and feedback, including Aryan, who aged out of FTC and now mentors the team, and employees at Microsoft and Boeing.

“The team started with only three members,” said Goura, who is lead programmer of Mark X. “Arnav and Aryan were doing fundraising around the neighborhood, going door to door selling cookies, and they ran into me. I’ve always loved STEM, but I wasn’t even in robotics at the time. It sounded super interesting. Now we have this funny saying that they traded a cookie for me.”

According to Goura, the team’s initial size limited them. 

“We had very similar points of view and were never really able to think outside of the box,” Goura said. 

With nine more members joining since the team’s inception, including the third Damle sibling, Reyna, the team has been able to expand creatively and bounce ideas off of each other. 

Towards the end of 2021, Mark X would begin to compete at league meets where they were ranked out of 20 teams. Each meet, the team had to redesign or present a new robot. The first meet on Nov. 20, Mark X ranked fourth, which started them off strong. In the second on Dec. 18, though the team placed third, morale seemed to be lower. 

“We were slowing down, I’ll admit,” Arnav said. “And in the third league meet, we brought a new robot and it didn’t seem to be going as well. Our judging presentation went well, but we all felt like we weren’t performing as we would have liked to.”

To the team’s surprise, Mark X ended up being ranked fifth at their third league meet. 

“That experience is one of the best things that’s happened this season, and one of my favorite memories of the team,” Arnav said. 

The final league meet took place on Jan. 15, where Mark X competed against 23 teams and secured their spot in the regional championship taking place on Feb. 26 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas. After a season of hard work and dedication, the team was able to cinch one of eight spots in the semifinals at the meet. 

As the team prepares for regional championships, members are looking out into the community.

Along with Goura’s hosting of programming classes for Bhutanese refugees in North Texas, Mark X hosted a food drive in support of the refugees after winter storms Yuri and Viola in 2021, as well as one for the North Texas Food Bank. 

CHS sophomore Vina Banthia, Mark X’s website manager, mentors for FIRST Lego League (FLL), another competition hosted by FIRST. In her second year of competing in FTC after three years of competing in FLL, Banthia is teaching herself and working with her teammates and mentors to learn HTML, CSS and Java. 

“A huge goal of ours this year is to encourage other girls to join STEM,” Banthia said. “I’m so glad I joined. I never thought I would love it so much, but robotics has changed my life.”

Follow Saniya Koppikar (@SaniyaKoppikar) and @CHSCampusNews on Twitter.