Wired up: UB Robotics team earns spot at world championship

students with awards.

The UB Robotics team with their winning robots, engineering notebook and awards at the RIT competition in February. From left are: Kelly Mackey, Greg Anto, Brigid Hickey and Sean Courtney.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published May 7, 2020

A love of robotics can bring people together, cutting across industries and engineering disciplines and connecting students from around the world.  

“I've had a passion for robotics since I was first introduced in high school. My field is involved in the creation of prosthesis, with some of the more high-end models involving robotics themselves.”
Kelly Mackey, Vice President of UB Robotics and team leader
senior biomedical engineering student

This unifying passion is never more on display than at the VEX U World Championship, where this year for the very first time, the UB Robotics earned a spot in the international event.

Each year, the championship brings together more than 300 teams that take part in local competitions around the globe and at VEX Worlds, supplementing higher education with competitive robotics. Due to COVID-19, VEX hosted the Fantasy Robotics Tournament, in lieu of the live championship, to celebrate the season.

“We were extremely disappointed with the news of the cancellation of the live event. Learning from our participation in recent competitions, the team had many new ideas we wanted to implement and test in order to compete with the top teams from around the world. Although disappointed, we understand the gravity of the situation and concern for everybody’s health and will hopefully be able to compete at Worlds next year,” says Kelly Mackey, a senior biomedical engineering major, Vice President of UB Robotics and the team leader.

“The highlight is really seeing all of your hard work, time and effort pay off. There is nothing more rewarding than after failing numerous times seeing something that you created from nothing function successfully,” she added.  

Mackey started the team at UB when she arrived at UB a few years ago. The road to qualifying for the international event included two competitions earlier in the spring semester. The team took first place at the RIT VEX U tournament on February 22, 2020, in Rochester, New York, winning the Tournament Champions, the Excellence Award and Robot Skills Champions. The Excellence Award qualified them for the 2020 VEX U World Championship.

The following week, they placed sixth overall in the Vaughn College VEX U Tournament in Queens, NY on February 28, 2020.

The UB team members come from across departments, who each get to showcase their unique skills when it comes to designing and building the robot. While they all share a love of robotics, and foundational knowledge in physics and math, each student pulls from their area for their role. For instance, when it comes to programming the robot, the coders draw on their coursework and experience with projects and internships to apply the coding language.

“I've had a passion for robotics since I was first introduced in high school. My field [biomedical engineering] is involved in the creation of prosthesis, with some of the more high-end models involving robotics themselves,” says Mackey. “I've had the opportunity to shadow at one of these facilities. I've taken courses that overlap with mechanical engineering students and industrial engineers.”

In addition to applying their experiences in SEAS, the positive energy and inclusive community are highlights for the team. Mackey says, “I have met some of the most amazing people through this project that I would have never known without it. I am grateful for all of the friendships that have formed because of working on Vex.”

In addition to Mackey, the UB core team included Greg Anto, a senior computer science major, Sean Courtney, a junior computer engineering major, and Brigid Hickey, a freshman mechanical engineering major. The team’s advisor is Jennifer Zirnheld, Maxwell Technologies Inc. Professor and Director of Energy Systems Integration in the Department of Electrical Engineering and a UB alumna (PhD '04, MS '97, BS '93, all in electrical engineering).  

In the VEX U World Championship, teams of students from around the world are tasked with designing and building a robot, which they then compete against other teams in a game-based engineering challenge. This year’s challenge was called Tower Takeover. Teams win by attaining the most points, which they get by placing cubes in towers, or scoring cubes in goal zones.

“What’s so cool about this being a truly global event is that we have kids working with other kids on the side of the globe,” says Karthik Kanagasabapathy, Master of Ceremonies of VEX Worlds. “And there’s no communication gap because they’re all speaking the same language of robots and STEM. It’s just really neat to see all of these passionate people get together.”