For the third time since 2011, the Atascadero High School Greybots have returned home from competition against some of the brightest robotics teams in the world as better than the rest. The Greybots are once again robotics world champs after winning the World Championships in Houston, Texas over the Easter weekend.
“We are overwhelmed by the success that the kids have had,” Atascadero Unified School District Superintendent Tom Butler said. “And we are so impressed with their work ethic and their character and we can’t say enough about them. Three-time world champions, that is over the top isn’t it!”
With their third win, Atascadero moves into an elite class as they are now one of only four teams to win three robotics world championships but this one may have been the most unlikely as team 973 entered this year’s finals as the underdogs.
The Greybots have been one of the best-kept secrets in the Central Coast for the better part of a decade just narrowly avoiding the spotlight of cameras, writers and administrators despite their great success due to the relatively unknown nature of what they do. Their success has forced the spotlight upon them and they have only continued to flourish as their support has increased proving they are one of the premier teams, not just in the school, but in the entire area.
Starting two years ago the Atascadero Unified School District implemented robotics into every elementary school and middle school in the district. This year, for the first time, the robotics team was granted a practice facility fit for a world championship caliber team doubled with a robotics class offered at the high school and they immediately delivered.
“I am really glad that based on our Board of Trustees and the District’s effort we have been able to bring a lot of additional support to the current teams and we have also invested in the future,” Butler said of the robotics program. “We have robotics at every elementary school and we have robotics in our middle school so we are really looking to build our feeder program now so those kids can really have that elite robotics-engineering experience.”
While Atascadero looks to continue to cultivate the robotics talent located in the area this year’s team will be remembered for their ability to persevere.
At the beginning of each robotics season, the teams are issued a challenge that everything will be centered around. This year’s challenge was to design a robot capable of fulfilling the mock-assignment of constructing and loading a “cargo rocket” on Mars. The challenge was called Operation: Deep Space and was chosen to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.
In layman's terms, the Greybots robot needed to be able to pick up dodgeballs and place them into goals of various heights and pick up panels with velcro on the back and also attach those to the ship. This is not something the Greybots accomplished on their own, Team 973 was accompanied by three other teams from California that they hand-selected. As the No. 1 ranked team in their division, the Greybots had first pick and went with a team from Madera and as the draft snaked back to them they selected a team from Burlingame as their second choice with their final team coming from El Segundo.
However, this year there was a slight wrinkle in the challenge that didn't exist in years past, a manually driven mode.
“In all past years you have had to have an autonomous mode, so this was something that worked in our favor because we had such an amazing driver,” Greybots student president Drew Daner said. “Some of the other teams might not have been so lucky to have such amazing drivers and had to make autonomous modes on their robots.”
All of the teams were given six weeks to build their robots before the qualification process began. The Greybots built theirs in only four.
“We completed ours in about four just so that we could have those extra two weeks to let our driver test it and get used to it so that by the time we went to our first regional we would have an idea of how it drove,” said Daner who is also one of the head strategists on the team. “And also sometimes the robots breakdown, so it gives us a chance to immediately flush out those problems in those two weeks we gave ourselves.”
After all of the preparation was finished and team driver Aaron Walcott was used to the controls, the Greybots had their robot, Fireball, and were ready to start competing. Atascadero went undefeated throughout their qualifying going a perfect 10 for 10 punching their ticket to Minute Maid Park in Texas. The World Championships brought together some 400 different teams from the United States and beyond as teams from Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and China converged on the Astros home field for a shot at the title.
The Greybots advanced through the elimination stages and found themselves in the final as underdogs. Atascadero was up against Team 254, a four-time world championship team from San Jose.
One of Atascadero’s partner teams’ robots experienced a bit of a malfunction in the Championship round which is a best of three, meaning the Greybots had to win both of their final two games to earn the title. Atascadero and their partners knotted up the game at one apiece and Walcott’s driving propelled the Greybots into an early lead in the final round that they rode all the way to the championship.
“In those last seconds we saw that we were ahead but it doesn't really matter until the final score goes up,” Daner said of the moments after the match ended and before they knew their scores. “Because there could be penalties and then the final score went up and there were no penalties on our side and everyone just started celebrating.”
There was barely a dry eye on the team as the Greybots celebrated their third world title while each of their partner schools celebrated the first ones in their history.
“It was so amazing. I don’t know I just remember I started crying and everybody started hugging everyone,” Daner recalled. “And so many people had tears of joy as well and everybody was just so excited. Not too many of us really even believed too much in ourselves, like we all knew we had some chance but it was the tiebreaker match where we're like, ‘you know what, we can do this.’”
The Greybots will now have a third banner to hang up in their new practice facility.
“We are pretty excited with what they have accomplished,” Butler said. “And I would say it is probably one of the greatest educational achievements in our county, period.”
While the world titles will hang from the rafters for years after the team is old and grown, there is a different legacy this Greybots team leaves behind. Every single senior on the Atascadero robotics team this year has committed to continuing their education at the the four-year level.