It is not rare for an adolescent boy to have a wandering mind. A couple years ago Leland Crowther could not concentrate during his select league soccer game. At halftime he kept drifting off during his coach’s speech. As the coach delved into the strategy for the second half against their rival team, Leland, a standout defensive midfielder, could not focus. He was fixated on one thing: the new design for the robot he and his friends were building.
This is not a simple hobby, like most things that teenage boys are fixated on. Green Egg Robotics is one of the best robot building teams in the world.
On April 24, at the Vex Robotics World Championships, Green Egg Robotics won the skills competition with a world record score of 141 and nearly defended their 2009 World Title by finishing second in the World Championship Tournament. The event was held at the Dallas Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, broadcast live on the NASA television station, and attended by thousands of infatuated fans.
The team consists of brothers Leland, 14 and James, 17, as well as their two friends Josef Ameur, 17 and Kieran O’Sullivan, 15. Leland and James reside in Oakham, Massachusetts, Josef and Kieran are from Worcester.
Three years ago James, Kieran, and Leland, who are all home schooled, took a class at an alternative school on robotics. All three enjoyed the class, but Leland had a fiery passion and recruited Kieran and James (Josef was recruited later) to start competing.
"I always liked taking things apart and building them, and I’m very competitive. Robot building combined those two things", Leland said.
The boys needed a sponsor, and did not have time to fund-raise; James and Leland’s Grandfather stepped in and funded the team’s competitive season. With no stated goals but to have fun and compete the boys entered a large number of tournaments. It turned out they were better than any of them realized. They won all but one tournament that year and finished in the top ten.
In 2009, as relative unknowns, Green Egg Robotics built a reputation as a formidable team. Flying under the radar, they surprised all of their opponents and won the Vex World Championship.
Each year there is a different game announced by Vex right after the championship. For the 2010 the game was called Clean Sweep. The objective was to have your remote controlled robot pick up and dump different types of Nerf Balls over a short wall into your opponents’ area in the allotted two minute and twenty second time frame (the first twenty seconds were autonomous, meaning the robot was programmed to do a specific task on its own). James controlled the driving, the other three split time controlling the lifting. Teams got a different number of points for each type of ball successfully removed from their side, along with bonus points if they could successfully place the smaller green balls in a narrow triangular tube.
Every team in the world is given access to the same parts to build with and have a month to assemble their robot before the first tournament. Throughout the season teams work on their robots, making improvements building up to the World Championships in April. The boys of Green Egg would work once a week from 9am-4pm on their robot, tweaking small details in an attempt to make their design as close to perfect as possible.
As defending champions the boys suddenly had to approach each tournament differently than they had in the past. Instead of being able to work together quietly to prepare their robot for competition at each venue Green Egg was inundated with curious opponents. "Everyone was coming to our pits and the Chinese teams were following us around", James said.
In Dallas, at the World Championships, each team is paired with two other teams after the qualifying Round-Robin-style tournament. In each tournament round there is a three game series, in which each robot has to be used at least once. The team with the highest cumulative score moves on.
On the road to the Finals Green Egg ran into some trouble. With a huge crowd watching there was an engine malfunction and the team had to act on their feet.
"It was our third year so we were experienced", said Kieran, "It is hard to put into words, working under pressure. Time flies because you are thinking."
Josef added, "You just have to stay intensely focused."
The boys successfully fixed their robot and continued to dominate before losing to a team consisting of members from China and New Zealand in the finals. However, most people feel that the skills competition is the best way to gauge how good a robot is, and Green Egg Robotics holds the World Record score for Clean Sweep.
The boys are taking some time off before they start working on their robot for Round Up, which is the game for 2011. Leland focuses on soccer in his free time. Kieran has a passion for botany and playing "any instrument with keys". Josef is a senior and wants to study Music Technology in college. James is a junior, who is just starting to think about applying to college and intends to play highly competitive collegiate soccer.
For more information visit: greeneggrobotics.com.
By the way: Because of an editing error, Josef Ameur’s name was originally misspelled.