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The teenagers cut the grass Wednesday night. That made Rob Mackie happy.
Even better: The boys had fixed the mower themselves. But their mentor expected more.
“I’m waiting for them to robot-icize it,” Mackie said as the boys clipped and cut. “You start with a remote control, then you give it sensors and let it drive itself.”
He wasn’t joking. The teens weren’t just doing yardwork on an east Cary rancher – they were mowing the lawn of a fully equipped robotics lab.
“The Forge” is the base of operations for Wake Robotics, a nonprofit affiliated with eight robot-building teams throughout the county. The former residence is buzzing with activity most nights, from the chatter of teenage engineers to a band saw’s scream.
The house’s bedrooms are stuffed with work benches and LEGO parts, its garage filled with tools, broken electronics and a go-kart-sized, basketball-chucking robot. The entire suburban property is dedicated full time to robotics, and Wake Robotics’ adult managers put in near-full-time hours to keep it running.
Even so, the program is operating at capacity – more than 100 people turned out to a recent open house, said Mackie, the vice president of Wake Robotics and a supervisor of its competition group, Team PyroTech.
“It’s amazing how much interest there is,” Mackie said.
In fact, the number of high school robotics teams in North Carolina has quadrupled to 38 in just three years, according to N.C. FIRST Robotics, which organizes events where robots compete in various trials.
With that expanding interest comes increasing demand for drill presses, soldering irons, saws and workspace. Wake Robotics’ repurposed suburban lab is a perfect example of the way teams improvise and scrabble to get their machines built.
One North Carolina team operates out of rented space in a strip mall, while others borrow classrooms or local companies’ machine shops. Wake Robotics and its teams are unique for having a full dedicated facility, said Marie Hopper, director of N.C. FIRST Robotics.
“Team PyroTech has an ideal situation in that they have access to that kind of space and tools, but there are teams that have been very successful that work out of a garage or out of a classroom,” Hopper said. A full-time base “is not necessary, but ... that kind of access increases the learning exponentially.”
Teams also have to pay demanding bills. Team PyroTech paid $19,000 to host a season’s worth of work for one taem last year, and high school teams generally face bills of at least $10,000 a year.
Neither the state government nor local schools fund robotics teams, Hopper said, so much of the money comes from local donations and from corporate sponsors who want to make engineers and programmers of students.
“They say it’s the only sport where everyone can go pro,” said Linda Whipker, president of Wake Robotics, as young tinkerers filed into The Forge last week.
In the lab
By 7 p.m. Wednesday, four girls and nine boys from across Wake County were gathered in the living room of The Forge. Some already knew how to program computers to translate sensor data into navigation instructions for the treads, or how to assemble a rugged metal skeleton.
Others had barely laid hands on a screwdriver.
“I was thinking it’d be a huge challenge, but it would be fun. It’s way out of my comfort zone,” said Britton Schick, a 15-year-old newcomer with electric purple hair.
The homeschooled Cary girl was soon learning how to connect a stepper motor to a G-code interpreter, one of the first steps toward assembling an automated CNC machining tool.
For Kyle Brown, 14, The Forge is the place to finally build his reams of mental blueprints.
“I haven’t actually built things before. ... Before now I hadn’t had the resources,” said Brown, a Leesville Road High School student. “This makes ideas become reality.”