The Tournament of Robots

Amanda Cardinal, with robot
Amanda Cardinal, with robot
Gendy Alimurung

The Botball girls love their robots. They love the robots' code, which they programmed themselves. They love their crazy hardware and diminutive size — like rogue kitchen appliances.

The annual Botball Educational Robotics Program tournament is taking place on a balmy summer day at the cavernous USC Galen Center. And though the members of the La Quinta High School Girls Team are not the only girls here, theirs is the only all-girl team. Members Courtlyn O'Grady, 15; Michelle Mehta, 16; Shannon Slankard and Amanda Cardinal, both 17; and Katie Oliver and Katie Gundlach, both 18; sit at a folding table surrounded by a jumble of laptops, wires, gears and assorted machine guts. They fuss over their robots like anxious parents.

Today, 64 teams will be winnowed down via double elimination to 16, then tomorrow to two, and finally, to one. At one end of the packed auditorium, rows of tables have been set up. These are the game boards, each about the size of a ping-pong table, on which the robots will duel.

The robots —all autonomous, with no remote control — run a kind of obstacle course, accumulating points for different tasks, which range from simple to extremely complex. They locate colored cubes, pick them up, bring them to another location and drop them into bins — that sort of thing. The game challenge changes every year: the robots are tasked with a coral reef cleanup, say, or returning samples from Mars. This year's theme is physical therapy, and the game board features little clothes hangers and miniature closet rods.

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Teams are here from China, Europe, the Middle East and all over the United States. But everybody starts with and is limited to the same box of parts. In the kit are Legos, various metal construction pieces, two controllers, cameras, 100 different sensors, screws, nuts, bolts, and an iRobot Roomba vacuum base. There are no instructions on how to put a physical therapy robot together. It's up to each team to figure out how to engineer it.

The La Quinta girls got their box of parts and began building their robot six months ago, in January. But their interest in robotics goes back years.

Gundlach, the team captain, was the first to catch the bug. Botball is an extracurricular club at her school. Her older brother participated, and one day after class while she was waiting for him, his mentor caught her playing with the Legos and recruited her for the boys' team. She was in third grade.

Gundlach eventually got one female friend into it. That girl pulled in another girl, who brought in another, then another. The girls were soon getting together to build robots. These days, they've been around one another so much, they practically speak their own language. For instance, they distinguish between the two Katies "tonally." Tall, lanky Gundlach is "Kay-TEE?" with an upward lilt. Shorter, voluptuous Katie Oliver is "KAY-tee," with a downward lilt.

They build the robot's physical structure first. Screwing bits together, attaching wheels to motors—that's Amanda Cardinal's job. She's one of the team's "builders."

"At first the programmers don't have to come, because there's nothing to program," Cardinal explains. "So the builders meet and figure out where to start. You have to visualize it, mentalize it. Like, I have dreams about robots. Last year, we were, like, living, breathing robots."

"We'll run to each other in the hallways," Katie Oliver says. "And she'll be like, 'Katie, Katie, I drew this in class.' We sit next to each other in math class and she's, like, drawing the robot!"

"I'll have a dream about it, and sometimes it won't work," Cardinal says. "Like, I built this accordion thing and it didn't work."

Ultimately, they built two robots, both named after their favorite witch characters on the TV show American Horror Story: Coven. "Cordelia" lifts hangers. "Misty" grabs blocks and puff-balls and deploys a defensive tentacle that whips and smashes the enemy.

The coolest thing about Botball varies depending on whom you ask. Katie Oliver likes seeing her old friends. Especially as a graduating senior, with separation imminent. "This is our last little hoorah," she says, in a melancholy way.

To Katie Gundlach, the coolest thing about Botball is other people's robots. She is amazed at how simultaneously different and similar they are. "Everybody around the world gets the same amount of pieces, the same equipment, but we all make something completely different," she says. Or sometimes they end up looking the same. That's cool too, in a different way.

Your own robot is always the coolest. "I like seeing my robots work," Cardinal says. "A lot."

But robots are fickle. Back home, the girls built a practice board. Nevertheless, the robot runs differently each time. "That's, like, the challenge of programming," Cardinal says. "You need to make a program that will work on numerous boards that are slightly millimeters off yours. Millimeters may not seem like a big deal, but to your robot, it's a huge deal."

Something as simple as battery percentage can affect performance. "Anything less than 80 percent, it doesn't work," Gundlach says. She laughs, a wry little sound. "There were a couple of times where I wished that the robot would just do what I wanted it to do. Sometimes I wish I could press one button to make it work."

Last year, the La Quinta girls took fifth overall. The year before that, they traveled to the tournament in Austria and claimed fourth overall.

The girls do not know how many hours they've put into robots. Cardinal wrinkles her nose. "A thousand hours?" she says. This does not include the hours spent fundraising—cleaning trash at vacant lots, selling raffle tickets outside grocery stores — for the $1,500 kit.

"This is like my whole life," says Gundlach, who is now in her 10th year of robot building. "It will be so weird not to do this anymore."

Soon, the pager buzzes and they're up. At the competition table, the girls hold hands as their robots set to work — scuttling, whirring, lurching about. They win one round, lose the next, then win the rest. By the skin of their teeth, they're through to the finals. They laugh and hug, looking radiant.

Unsurprisingly, guys have expressed interest in joining their team. But Gundlach and the rest want to keep it girls-only. In a minute, a guy comes over and asks a dumb question, which Gundlach answers.

"He wants you," Slankard teases as he leaves. The girls giggle.

"Katie got her number asked for two times," Cardinal says. She's been asked out, too, but she won't be calling them back. She thinks of the guys as little children. "This is not the best place to meet boys," she explains.

"Uh, no," Slankard corrects. "This is the best place to meet boys."

"It's true," Gundlach says. "They're all smart. They're all probably going to be rich someday."

Slankard snorts. "Yeah. Rich and awkward."

"We can't lose again," Cardinal says, turning her attention back to the robots.

Another boy comes over. He looks as if he is going to say something, then changes his mind and leaves. "Hey," Slankard exclaims. "He was scoping out our robot!"

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