Local robotics team looks to win big at St. Louis regional competition

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COLUMBIA - A Columbia-based robotics team looks to take home the gold at the FIRST Robotics regional competition in St. Louis. They started their round of the competition Saturday.  

 “I think we have a good chance of doing well this year, in St. Louis especially, we are coming in a lot more prepared than we have in previous years,” said Cami Kudrna, a three-year member of the team.

Army Ants is the FIRST team competing from Columbia. It is made up of 34 high school students interested in STEM.   

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and is an international robotics program for students of all ages.

Kudrna said joining Army Ants helped her plan her future.

“I knew I was good at math, but I didn’t necessarily know how to apply that and I didn’t really want to be a math teacher, and then I found robotics,” she said.

The team captain, Yousuf El-Jayyousi, said it takes no prior knowledge to join.

“I came to the team knowing nothing about robotics, like how to build robots and design robots, and now I’m the team captain and the drive coach.”

The Army Ants have been competing since 2011 and got their name from the popular television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”  

“The name comes from the episode where Sheldon picks the name for their physics bowl team because 'gram for gram, no animal exceeds the relative fighting strength of the army ant,'”   said head mentor Kevin Gillis.

Each year the team is given a different robotics game to design a robot for.

Gillis said this year’s game theme is picking up and moving cubes. The team scores points by placing the cubes on balances.

The team only has six and a half weeks to design, build, and program a 120 pound remote powered robot.

“This year’s game reveal was on January 26th and the kids have to start on the robot completely from scratch,” Gillis said.

Kudrna said it's "pretty stressful" to start.

"But once you start getting into the swing of things and start making decisions it becomes a lot easier,” she said. “The hardest part is trying to get everyone a job to do. There’s a lot of people here with different levels of experience so the older members have to help the new members and teach them the ropes.”

After the Army Ants compete at the St. Louis regional competition, they will travel to Huntsville, Alabama.  If they do well, can qualify for nationals in Houston in April.