UNC Asheville robotics team wins silver in surprise upset


Jon Grunau

Pictured left to right, Ryan Stacks, Gustavo Melo-Perez, Hunter Horan, Steven Anderson, Luis Martinez and Robert Brenneman are part of the UNC Asheville robotics team.

“We’re probably going to lose the next round.” 

It was hard to believe the unstoppable Virginia Tech team would admit defeat. As it stood, they saw it coming and in an act of camaraderie confided in the UNC Asheville team. 

Placing fifth in the upcoming bracket, Virginia Tech fell, leaving UNCA’s robotics team to fill their shoes. 

Up against giants such as the University of Florida, Alabama and others, the team found their confidence waning in the twilight hours of the competition. 

“We weren’t sure if we were ready to go to the competition,” said Robert Brenneman, 22, of the UNCA robotics team. “We redid motor drivers, sensors, everything we could to make sure we were prepared.” 

The air in the Mobile convention center buzzes as if supercharged, with teams from varying colleges and universities scrambling to make last-minute adjustments to their bots, the culmination of months of hard work and determination. 

Whether or not it would be enough would remain to be seen. 

“I kept asking myself, ‘are we ready for this?’” Brenneman said as he fiddled with one of Rocky’s more complex mechanisms. Affectionately named after UNCA’s mascot and decked out in the event’s theme, it wouldn’t look out of place at a Mardi Gras party. 

Months of prep work had gone into the robot that would be competing in the tournament. 

Paired up with a shining gold and bright blue trophy, it stands out all the more as the crowning achievement of the UNCA robotics team. Amidst the clutter of the robotics room in Rhodes Robinson Hall, Rocky stands proud in the eye of a storm of organized chaos. 

“After arriving, we had to code and restructure Rocky for around 30 hours,” said Gustavo Melo-Perez, a member of the team who went to the event at the start of April. At 20 years old, Gustavo smiles as he wraps up his third year in robotics. “It was exhausting, and we didn’t go back to our hotel rooms until around two in the morning.” 

Following the resurrection of the Robotics club, ‘Lord’ Eli Buckner and his team have worked tirelessly to prepare for the tournament in Mobile, Ala. With 12 of the 16 members attending, it was a trek across the states that none would soon forget. 

Crammed into a white and car, the team drove eight hours packed along with their equipment, with many others coming from even farther away. At the helm, Buckner was the glue holding the team together. 

“Eli is such a great mentor and leader of the team,” Brenneman said when asked about the self proclaimed ‘CEO’ of the robotics team. “He’s got his quirks, but he’s the reason we were able to go to the tournament in the first place.”

Designed to pick up beads with a main claw arm and deposit them in cups along a track, Rocky needed to do multiple complex tasks in order to score points against the other college teams attending the tournament. 

This included swiping obstacles on the track out of the way, as well as accurately detecting barriers and knowing when to turn without input from the controller. 

“While other teams tried more ambitious strategies to score large amounts of points, we decided to go with something safe and consistent,” Brenneman said. “We got to experiment with some new materials at the last minute when it came to the main claw, and that let us create something really good.”

Different robots trundled along identical tracks, stringent judges and nervous students watching in anticipation as the man-made machines performed their assigned tasks with either graceful or ungainly movements.

Every now and then, a bot would fail to the despair of its designers, at the same time cheers arose when a bot performed as it was designed. It was an environment of hope, horror, despair and joy. 

“I’ve been doing robotics since high school,” said Ryan Stacks of the UNCA robotics team. “It was exciting to do as well as we did, even though we didn’t expect it.” 

As the competition went on into its last few rounds, tensions ran high. 

After the loss of Virginia Tech in the semi-finals, hope finally began to bloom as it seemed they had a shot at winning gold, if not for a technical issue, one the robotics team couldn’t have anticipated. 

“The paint they used for the tracks was brand new,” Brenneman said. 

The marshmallow Rocky needed to push out of the way to score points, didn’t slide as much as it should have. 

“We lost because the track wasn’t as smooth as the one we practiced on back at the university.” Brenneman said, an exasperated look on his face as he rubbed his hands across the painted surface. 

Gold faded to silver as UNCA lost by a close margin, yet this did little to dampen the spirits of the team who didn’t expect to place anywhere higher.

“We expected to place in the top 20 or so, definitely not second,” said Hunter Horan, member of the robotics team. “It’s still a bit of a shock, even now. 

Looking at the team members playfully jostling each other and trading barbs, their second place victory seems like a foregone conclusion.  

“When we were called up to claim our second place prize, the entire team came up to claim the trophy,” Stacks said fondly. “It was pretty funny, because other teams only sent up a few members, or a representative. We all came up together, all 12 of us.” 

Standing together in the robotics room, the journey from a pile of parts to the second place winning robot isn’t completely clear. 

Looking at the team behind it, one can begin to understand just how such a miraculous victory came about.

“The teams we competed against were all really good sports about it,” Brenneman said. “Nobody was really butting heads with other teams, and there was a good sense of camaraderie.”