FIRST Robotics Competition inspires DND employees

Students from Esquimalt High School make some last-minute repairs to their robot ‘Spike’ before a quarter final match.

Left: Students from Esquimalt High School make some last-minute repairs to their robot ‘Spike’ before a quarter final match. Photos by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

Two employees from CFB Esquimalt are now believers in the FIRST Robotics Competition’s (FRC) power to inspire high school students about careers in science and technology.

Earlier this month Mimi Cahill, a Federal Student Work Experience Program employee with Base Information Services, and Petty Officer Second Class Victor Haines, a Weapons Engineer at Fleet Maintenance Facility, volunteered to help in the first B.C. Regional Championship.

The robo-sport competition took place March 15 and 16 at Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena, and challenged teams of 10 or more high school students to build from scratch, in just six weeks, a five-foot tall, 68 kilogram robot, and then enter it in a skill-testing competition.

Cahill, who is studying Applied Computer Science at Dalhousie University, says a high school student’s experience with FIRST could be a career or life-changer.

“The hands-on experience and work to build robots can inspire a lot more than looking at code or a formula in a text book,” said Cahill. “Whether these students end up in STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] based fields, this experience may inspire them to a career path they may never before have considered.”

This year’s regional competition involved 30 B.C. teams from across the province, and guest teams from further afield in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, California and Mexico. There are 160 regional competitions around the world with about 3,000 teams, with the ultimate goal to qualify for the FIRST world championship event.

No ‘I’ In Team

PO2 Haines ensured competitors were complying with the competition’s official rule book, and says teamwork was crucial to succeeding.

“They not only have to build the robot but they also must build a team and work with each other,” said PO2 Haines. “I really enjoyed seeing how young students can build that camaraderie that I have learned to develop in the military. That experience of camaraderie is not just a military thing but a human one.”

Team work paid off for the Atom Smashers robotics team from Esquimalt High School.

They were named winners of the Rookie All-Star Award which qualifies them for a trip to the April 18 to 21 finals in Houston, Texas.

But their road to success was a bumpy one.

Spike the robot was not made from the usual aluminum as the team did not have access to the tools and expertise necessary for metalworking. So they improvised and created parts from plastic using a 3D printer. They also had to learn JAVA computer language quickly to program a computer that controlled Spike’s movements. 

On the competition floor Spike competed against other teams to showcase the robot’s capabilities such as hoisting blocks and moving them to bins. Every maneuver was judged by a panel who compiled and tabulated each team’s score.

All Systems Go

Despite the less durable plastic parts, Spike won some opening matches. But the next afternoon the robot’s motor came unhinged, and experienced brake issues. The setback forced the team to make frenzied last minute repairs, and eventually led to their elimination in the quarter finals.

“Although we were eliminated by the setback, the competition helped the students come together as a team, and work together to find solutions to the problems,” said Tina O’Keeffe, from Esquimalt High School, moments after giving a pep talk to her dejected young charges. “I believe it really taught them a great deal about team work and perseverance.”

At the end of the competition, the judges deemed the Esquimalt High School team best exemplified the spirit of the challenge and named them rookie all-stars.

To get to Houston, the Atom Smashers need $26,000. Individuals or businesses interested in sponsoring the team are encouraged to contact O’Keeffe at: or donate at

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