Introducing the Champbots: Wake Robin Senior Living team wins robotic tech challenge

Photo by Madeline Clark
Left to right: Steve Silverman and Jim Wick pose with team “Geezer Bot’s” aquatic remote-controlled creature modeled off the famed Lake Champlain sea Monster, “Champ.” The duo was part of the oldest team to compete in this year’s ChampBot competition during The Champlain Mini Maker Fair.

MADELINE CLARK
Staff Writer

They say age is but a number, but for local robotics team “Geezer Bot,” age provided the experience necessary to win an aquatic robot competition.

With a combined age north of 260 years, Wake Robin residents Ed Cobbs, Jim Wick, and Steve Silverman, as well as their teammate Brook Martenis, were the oldest competitors in the Sept. 28 ChampBot Challenge.

The ChampBot Challenge is an aquatic robotics race in which teams of varying sizes and ages construct a Champ robot – inspired by Lake Champlain’s famed sea monster – and race it along an obstacle course off the shore near the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn.

The robot must be built to withstand the wind and waves of Lake Champlain and be able to traverse an obstacle course. Optional challenges include crafting a Champ that can be fully submerged for 10 seconds, “breathe fire” to ignite a piece of paper and pick up a piece of “Champ Food” and place it in baby champ’s nest.

The Geezer Bots and their pink Champ bested six other teams for the title and were the only team able to complete all three optional challenges.

“We were the oldest team,” Silverman said. “As a matter of fact, if you add up all the ages …”

“We’re probably as old as everybody else put together,” Wick finished.

“But that’s our experience level too,” Silverman added. 

Indeed, the crew had a fair amount of robot experience. Wick used to lead a team of high schoolers in “First Robotics,” an international robotics competition. More recently, he’s competed in the Chambot competition four times. Silverman has a background in engineering and physics and has dabbled in robotics as a hobby.

But Silverman and Wick were quick to point out their ChampBot technically isn’t a robot.

Their bot is comprised of five motors: two for forward and reverse propulsion and three for submersion. It is remote-controlled, like a remote-control airplane or boat. The bot lacks a computer, which a true robot would have.

“It doesn’t think,” Wick explained. “There’s no brain.”

“Just like its creators,” Silverman quipped.

Courtesy photo
The Geezer Bot’s Champ sets fire to a piece of paper during the competition. It was one of three optional challenges that helped the team best the competing bots.

But jokes aside, it took brainpower to build their champ of a Champ. The team met for several hours each week from February right up until the competition on Sept. 28. In winter months, they’d gather at the Wake Robin swimming pool to test and modify their robot.

“It takes a long time,” Wick said.

There were many components to consider: how to create a buoyant bot, how to ensure the wires were waterproof and wouldn’t short, how to make it “breathe fire” as well as submersible.

Buoyancy was achieved through pontoon-like water bottles affixed to their PVC chassis. Submersion was accomplished with the three downward motors; relying on positive buoyancy to resurface the bot. As for breathing fire, well…

“We breathe fire out of its ass,” Wick said. Attached to their Chambot’s rear is part of a highway flare, which was ignited to light a piece of paper on fire and earn points.

But achieving those capabilities was no small task.

“It doesn’t all just come to you in a flash in the middle of the night,” Wick said. “It’s step by step.”

In Champ’s case, improvement came stroke by stroke. Each practice session revealed new challenges. Sometimes it was frustrating, but other times it was exciting, Wick and Silverman said. Eventually, through perseverance and creativity, the crew worked out all the kinks.

“I think the biggest thing about it is we practice a lot,” Silverman said. “We test it test it, test it, test it and we had problems along the way and just worked it through.”

On the aesthetics side, their robot also won the “People’s Choice” award for its pleasant appearance. Team member Martenis created the bot’s pink serpentine form using a 3-D printer at the Generator Makerspace in Burlington. And though Wake Robin residents made up a good portion of the spectators, Wick believes they won over attendees from outside the retirement community as well.

The Geezer Bot team paid to compete, but this year, with their first place and people’s choice winnings, they finished “in the black,” Silverman said. More than that, they had a good time.

According to Wick and Silverman, this year’s bot experience was a rewarding one.

“We worked hard but it was definitely a labor of love,” Silverman said. “The biggest reward, to me, is we practiced a lot and it paid off.”

The team intends to compete again next year, resuming practice this winter after the holidays. Plus, it’s downright fun.

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” Wick said.

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