With stolen robot back, team races to get it ready for next contest

By Khalida Sarwari

There’s no rest for the wicked, nor apparently for the Monta Vista High School robotics team after learning that its stolen robot had been found on someone’s lawn in Utah.

That’s where team members had traveled for a robotics competition in early March, and as soon as the robot was back in their possession they quickly went to work to get it back in tip-top shape for another contest later this month in Idaho.

The El Toro XXI went missing shortly after midnight March 3 from the parking lot of the team’s hotel in West Valley City, about seven miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Surveillance video captured thieves unhitching the trailer the robot was stored in just a few hours after the students placed third in the FIRST Robotics Competition, said Ninaad Sridharan, a senior on the team. Faculty adviser John Yelinek discovered both the trailer and box-lifting robot—worth an estimated $50,000—missing the following morning.

The culprits, who have yet to be identified by police, abandoned the robot five days later on a residential lawn about 20 miles from where the competition was held.

“Basically, the people who owned the house saw the news and called the cops and the cops came and inspected the robot and gave it back to us,” Ninaad said.

The missing trailer meanwhile was recovered in Millcreek, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Its contents, which consisted mostly of spare parts, tools and the team’s apparel, were gone.

Yelinek, who stuck around the area a extra few days after the students flew back home in case the items turned up, returned with an empty trailer and El Toro, which for the most part appeared to be in good condition, Ninaad said.

“It was generally intact,” he said. “Some of the wires were cut and because of the weather, it was kind of rusted, like the exposed screws and bearings, any of the metal parts that was snowed or rained on. But after a few hours of fixing it, it was in functional condition. It came back in better condition than I expected.”

Ninaad and his teammates immediately scrapped their plan to build a brand new robot within 20 days—the first one took them six weeks —and are now working feverishly to repair El Toro in time for the March 29-31 competition in Boise, Idaho. Giving up was never an option, Ninaad said.

“If we didn’t get the robot back, there was a possibility that we wouldn’t get the (new) robot done in time,” he said. “We were lucky to get it back.”

Through their school, the students also successfully raised $10,000 to replace the missing tools and spare parts. Robotics teams from other schools also offered their labor and equipment, Ninaad added. The lesson in all this, he said, is that setbacks happen, but when they do there’s usually people who will step up to offer a helping hand.

“There was so much support and that was something we all really needed,” he said. “It was unbelievable the amount of local teams that have reached out to us to help. The whole community was really supportive of us; everybody wanted us to get back on our feet and build a new robot if we didn’t get our old one back in time.”

Not only did the team place third in Utah, but it also won the entrepreneurship award. If it repeats that success in Idaho, the students will advance to the nationals, which is slated for mid-April in Houston.


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