Robot SWARM Takes Over Albany Schools

Despite all of the sordid news and dystopian tales of artificial intelligence taking over society, a team in Albany is demonstrating that robots have the capacity to bring people together rather than destroy them. This team of high school students and mentors has competed nationally, and placed strongly among teams from all over the world. Now the team seeks new blood to bolster its ranks and prepare for the next throw down.

Known as SWARM 957 (an acronym for South West Albany Robotics Maniacs), their latest feat was participating in the FIRST World’s Championship in Houston last month—a robotics competition with over 15,000 students and 400 teams from as far away as Israel and Australia. Not only did they place well, they got 2nd in a division that ultimately produced the world champion.

How SWARM received that colossal invitation and showing was through a lot of hard work and by winning competitions locally, like their 2nd place showing in Wilsonville, competing in Lake Oswego, and qualifying at the Pacific Northwest Championship in Portland. The SWARM team has been ranked as high as 10th out of 150 teams in the Pacific Northwest, but the invitation and subsequent success at World’s far surpassed their original expectations—especially since it had been 8 years since their last appearance there. 

It is also impressive because of the quick turnaround for teams competing in World’s. Each year, teams have six weeks to design, build and program their robots in accordance with the instructions from the FIRST competition. Teams build the bots based on field elements, the point system, and other specifications that FIRST requires.

The SWARM team is an amalgamation of students from South Albany High School, West Albany High School, and Connections Academy (ORCA). Relying on adult mentors that volunteer their time after work, the high school students learn engineering, computer-aided design and drafting (CADD), programming, community engagement, fundraising, and communication skills through their work with robotics. Although the main focus of the SWARM team is to build and compete with robots, they also have an added mission of giving back to the community by teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math skills. 

As often with extracurricular activities these days, it is a grassroots effort to fund and run the robotics team. One chief sponsor, Viper Northwest, a local metal fabrication company, donated some critical parts to the current robot. Other support came from companies like Autodesk—the makers of AutoCAD software—as well as the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 280 and Albany Public Schools. Local software company Hewlett-Packard (HP) is also a main sponsor of SWARM.  

There is no tuition for joining the SWARM team and interested students need not have any robotics skills. The earliest a student can join is 8th grade, extending to 12th grade. All students work on the initial design and are then broken into teams for programming, assembly, electronics and drawing plans and specs in CADD. During competitions there is a drive team, with one main driver.

The head mentor of the SWARM team, a computer scientist by day, is Robin Hobbensiefken. Try saying that name three times fast. Fresh off their last competition, Hobbensiefken and his high school age son, River, are busy loading up their robot onto a small trailer to demo at a pep rally at a local high school. 

River, a junior at ORCA, is also the driver of the crate-stacking robot, Otis, named in honor of the elevator system because of its lifting capabilities. Although River’s dad is the head mentor, River was heavily vetted by his team’s mentors to assume the driver role. Asked if he felt any pressure during the World’s event, he was cool and collected, saying that it was so fun driving that he didn’t worry much about how well he did.

River explains that there is always a need to recruit new members to the SWARM team. Next year’s crop of students will be cut in half by graduating seniors. Groups like FIRST and other local industries are banking on the fact that students involved in robotics will be the wave of the future…unless of course the robots do turn on us. 

By Chris McDowell