Competition hones skills of robotics team

April 9, 2014

By Sam Kenyon

When you step into the Rathnam house in Snoqualmie, it’s clear Legos have a special significance to the family. Complex Lego structures in the shape of dinosaurs or motorcycles adorn the shelf-space. And there is a table dedicated to Legos, but not for idle play.

The mission table is used for practice in the First Lego League, and the Rathnam house is headquarters for the award-winning Team Hydrobot.

Team Hydrobot is an FLL team made up of five kids from the Valley. Hari Rathnam and Manjesh Puram are in sixth grade, Rahul Chaliparambil and Shyam Gandhi are in eighth grade, and Sanya Tamhane is in fourth grade. All of them attend Chief Kanim Middle School except Tamhane, who goes to Endeavour Elementary.

Ram Rathnam, the team’s coach and father of 12-year-old Hari, first learned about FLL more than five years ago with his older son, Vishnu.

“At that time we had no idea what we were getting into,” Ram said. “It is sports for your mind.”

FLL is an international competition for youth interested in science, engineering and technology. Teams of 9 – 14 year olds are given a theme and must provide a real-world solution to a real-world problem. The most recent theme was “Nature’s Fury.” Team Hydrobot came up with a solution for flooding.

The Lego league

FIRST Lego League is a robotics competition growing in popularity around the country and the world. It is part of the FIRST organization, an international youth organization dedicated to inspiring students in engineering and technology fields.
FIRST was founded in 1989 by Woodie Flowers and Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway.
There are varying levels of FIRST competitions that focus on robotics. FLL is for kids ages 9-14 and is based on palm sized computer bricks called Lego Mindstorm. Kids then graduate to the FIRST Tech Challenge at the high school level, where they begin to work with robots made of metal instead of Legos.
Learn more at

The teams are judged on three categories: the presentation, the core values, and the robot design. The first category is based on the project idea — in Team Hydrobot’s case, an improved sandbag — and the oral presentation of the idea during the competition. The team must work together and present a project board outlining their solution.

The core values category is based on the values of teamwork, problem solving, and time management.

But the show stopper is the robot. The robot is judged on both design and performance on the mission table. The robot category is only one-third of the FLL judging, but it is clearly the largest priority for the teams and the competition.

The robot is a Lego Mindstorm, a programmable palm-sized brick computer that can be customized with Lego pieces. The FLL robot has to carry out tasks autonomously on the mission table, a table covered in a map produced by FLL.

The robot is awarded points for various tasks, such as rescuing a Lego vehicle from a dangerous zone on the table and carrying it to a designated safe zone. The more tasks the team’s robot completes, the higher the team’s score.

Team Hydrobot won a total of three awards in the last FLL season. In the qualifying round, they won the champions award, meaning they were the best overall team out of more than 50 teams attempting to qualify for the next round.

The team then took home a presentation category award at the semi-finals for being one of the top three teams. Team Hydrobot took home another presentation award at the finals.

Rathnam estimates there are about 600 FLL teams in the Washington and Vancouver area. Winning the award at the finals means that Team Hydrobot is in the top three presenters out of all 600 teams.

The season changed them, he said.

They matured as individuals and as a team. The challenges of their project made them evolve.

“They grew, I would say, quite a bit,” said Chitra Rathnam, Hari’s mom and Ram’s wife.

In the beginning of the FLL season, the team was casual about the competition. They got together a few times a week to work on their project and program their robot. They weren’t always focused and on task, but as the qualifiers got close, the team increased the hours they worked together.

After performing so well at the qualifiers, the intensity increased even more. The team worked together 16 hours a week.

“In sports, the goal is to go and win,” said Ram. “These guys are like ‘We want to have fun. In the process, if we get the trophy, great.’”

The team and coach say they’re not terribly competitive by nature. They do FLL for the experience, not for the hardware.

“The success was really a by-product,” Chaliparambil said. “The real goal was preparing us for future events that will involve this type of stuff, teamwork, time management.”

But even if it isn’t the goal, earning a trophy can be pretty nice. Chitra watched the team goof around early in the season and buckle down in the stretch. She encouraged the kids to finish strong.

“You put so much time and effort into it, you might as well win something,” she said.

Ram thinks FLL prepares the team for the future, when he predicts technology will be more important than it is now. He sees the engineering, research, and project management skills the team learns now as a key to their adulthood.

“I think the future is going to be a lot more automation, and this helps them,” he said. “It allows them to build skills that will be the future.”

Team Hydrobot came together to achieve a common goal, and they each brought different skills to their team. Chaliparambil did much of the programming while Gandhi handled the presentation. Tamhane kept the group on task while Hari was the project manager, organizing the group’s progress. Puram spent his time on the design elements. They learned how to build a robot and they learned how to build a team.

Regardless of their success, the process taught them a great deal. As Ram learned five years ago with his first son and FLL, winning is nice, but it isn’t the only prize.

“It’s all about learning.”


Sam can be reached at or via Twitter @samuel_kenyon.

Bookmark and Share
Other Stories of Interest: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Got something to say?

Before you comment, please note:

  • These comments are moderated.
  • Comments should be relevant to the topic at hand and contribute to its discussion.
  • Personal attacks and/or excessive profanity will not be tolerated and such comments will not be approved.
  • This is not your personal chat room or forum, so please stay on topic.