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TechFire gears up for robotics competitions

Alyssa Pressler
  • The York County robotics team is at the start of their competitive season for the year.
  • They are putting the finishing touches on their robot, which will compete in March.
  • TechFire 225 is coming back after a phenomenal season last year.

For weeks, York County's robotics team, TechFire 225, has been hard at work on their competition robot for the upcoming season.

The 36 students on the team have poured every spare second  into their robot ahead of the Feb. 21 build deadline, after which the team has very strict limitations on changes to their robot.

TechFire is a local For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology  team. FIRST is a global organization with a focus on getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering, math  and robotics. According to its website, FIRST has more than 400,000 students who participate each year.

TechFire has students ranging in age from age 13 to 18, representing 11 York County high schools. These students compete year round, but the main season runs from January to April each year.

Each year the competition has a new theme with different sets of rules, so teams start their robots from scratch. After the Jan. 7 theme announcement,  the students, with the help of about 13 community mentors, begin building their robot.

If you ask to see the robot or take photos, don't expect to get far. This team  takes its competition seriously. It won't post any photos of the robot or its design before competition to keep that edge against other teams in the region.

This season: This year's theme is "FIRST Steamworks" and requires robots to pick up balls, which represent fuel, and shoot them into a machine to "power it up." The robots also  must pick up gears and  able to climb up a rope at the end of the game, among many other things. Some parts of competition require the robots to do tasks on their own, other times, a human is controlling the robot. Each part of the game results in points.Three FIRST teams form an alliance during the competition to compete against another alliance.

Amy Harmon Krtanjek

, a team mentor, said TechFire  spent two or three days after the worldwide announcement analyzing the rules and coming up with different aspects the robot absolutely must have, such as a space to carry the balls that the robot will pick up.

The team then began prototyping and building different aspects of the robot. They continued working on the robot until  midnight on Feb. 21, when the robot had to be sealed in a bag. The team may unseal the bag and work on the robot for no more than six hours leading up to the start of competition. These hours must be meticulously logged, or the team could be disqualified, said Donnie Krtanjek, team mentor and husband of Amy Harmon Krtanjek.

The Krtanjeks'  son, Jagr

is also involved in TechFire  as a student from York Country Day School.

TechFire member Brett Gallagher, 14, of Stewartstown, works on his laptop while teammember Katie Neptune, 13, of Manchester Township, looks on as the team prepares for their upcoming FIRST Robotics Competition in Jacobus, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

TechFire  goes above and beyond to maintain an edge.

The team members create an exact replica of their competition robot. The extra robot allows them to make changes and practice after the deadline. If they like the changes or notice problems, the team members know exactly what to fix on the competition robot and can do it quickly, so they don't waste one minute of their precious time.

Being a student on the TechFire  team builds important skills for students' futures, such as working on a large team, working on deadline, marketing, communicating an idea effectively and, of course, plenty of experience in technology and engineering.

"It teaches kids persistence," Amy Krtanjek said. "A lot of times the kids here are really smart, so they've never really hit a wall in school."

They hit plenty of walls with TechFire.

Jagr Krtanjek,a sophomore  who works with the Computer Aided Design section of the team, said that building involves a lot of trial and error. Jagr helps create a computerized idea of what the robot should look like, so that while teams are working on different aspects, he can make sure they all come together seamlessly. This requires a lot of updates and changes as they go.

The regional competitions start the first week of March, but TechFire  won't compete until March 18 and 19. On March 18 the team will compete for their rank, which is combined with other data by teams to figure out who their alliances should be. March 19 will be the playoff competition, held in Philadelphia.

The team will compete in another event April 1 and 2 in Skillman, New Jersey. Depending on how well they do, the team could move on to compete in the world championships at the end of April.

TechFire team member Ben Schwartz, 14, of Hopewell Township, looks for spacers for the gear holder while working on the teams robot for their upcoming FIRST Robotics Competition, in Jacobus, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Last year: TechFire had a phenomenal season last year, during which attended the world championship, placing in the top 24 teams out of 3,200, according to a news release.

The team also attended the Indiana Robotics Invitational, a competition Jagr described as even more difficult than FIRST's competitions because it is by invitation only. Each year only 70 of the most successful teams in the country are chosen. TechFire  has been invited for the past three years, but in the most recent competition, took second place in its alliance with other robotics teams and broke a world record.

York robotics students excel at world championships

The Team: With its variety of schools and ages, the TechFire 225 team is incredibly diverse. One thing all the members have in common is a passion for their yet-to-be-named robot. Each member contributes whatever he or she can, even if it has little to do with the technological side.

For example, 16-year-old Elle Wagner works on the scouting aspects. She has worked with other members to build an app that organizes various FIRST teams' competition information. She's instrumental in choosing who they should partner with during competitions. She joined three years ago when she heard about the team in a class at Susquehannock High School and went to an event.

"I love the strategy, I think it's so cool," Elle said.

Her favorite part about being on the team is the dynamic, not only among her own team members, but with the other teams as well. FIRST and TechFire promote gracious professionalism, which means being gracious, even to your competitors, regardless of the outcome.

"Everyone respects everyone," Elle said. "It's not just robots. The team environment is different than any other sport."

TechFire CAD team member Jagr Krtanjek, 15, of Loganville, works with specs for the FIRST Robotics Competition Team's robot  in Jacobus, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Through her time at TechFire, Elle has found a passion for bio engineering, in which she hopes to major after she graduates.

Kylie Nikolaus, a 17-year-old senior  from Eastern York High School, has had a similar experience, but unlike Elle, loves the technical side. She joined the team four years ago with her best friend and has been an active member ever since.Thanks to TechFire, Kylie plans to study engineering, but she isn't sure which school she'll attend.

"I think no matter what someone is interested in, there's a place for them here," she said, referring to the opportunities to work on the team's social media, marketing to sponsors and donors and other aspects.

Bryce Neptune, a 16-year-old student from Central York High School, joined TechFire  two years ago after he heard about it through the grapevine and was hooked immediately. He said TechFire helped him break out of his shell and realize his dream of studying engineering at MIT.

"It helps you broaden your horizons and helps you refine skills," Bryce said.