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Student uses robotics team skills to upgrade wheelchair
When Nick Butler arrives at the Arthur Ashe Center today, his opponents in the state robotics championships may dismiss him as an easy foe to vanquish.
At first glance, Nick’s fingers seem to be withered from muscular dystrophy.
But the disability actually helps the 16-year-old Brooke Point High School student excel as the driver of a robot.
Nick has spinal muscular atrophy type 2, and he’s used a power wheelchair, controlled by a joystick, since his toddler years.
A joystick is also used to control Bipii, the robot created by Brooke Point’s team for the competition. So his experience controlling his wheelchair makes him a skilled controller of the robot.
Driving his wheelchair through the crowded halls of Brooke Point gives Nick an edge when it comes to maneuvering Bipii.
“I’ve learned to see where I can’t see,” Nick said. “I have to keep track of my surroundings or I will bump into a lot of stuff.”
And he’s also learned how to make the most of every inch of space.
“I’m pretty good at squeezing my robot—and my wheelchair—into tight spaces,” Nick said.
Nick’s love of video games also helps him drive the robot. Bipii’s controller closely resembles the devices used with game consoles.
Robotics teammate Noah Golmant programs the controller to perform tasks specific to the competition taking place in Richmond on Saturday.
Nearly 50 high school and middle school teams will descend on the Arthur Ashe Center to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge.
The tasks change annually, and Nick often has to learn new programmed tasks on the fly as the team often makes last-minute adjustments at competitions.
The team has advanced to the state level annually since Brooke Point started offering Robotics three years ago. Nick was a founding member of the team.
While his experience with the wheelchair and video games has helped, he didn’t naturally gravitate toward driving the robot.
Each team member has a responsibility and Nick, who has tinkered with robots since elementary school, was more interested in building the robot.
But Nick soon excelled at driving the robot—so much so that team coach Kim Whitehouse calls Nick “our ace in the hole.”
In the robotics technology challenge, the team has to get the robot to perform certain tasks, which change from year to year.
This year, Bipii will have to put rings on a vertical grid while competing with another robot.
Saturday, Nick will stand on the edge of the competition field and drive Bipii around the field, while another driver will use a controller with different computer programs to make the robot pick up and lift the rings.
Driving Bipii through the exercises will take a great deal of focus.
“People say I have the most extreme game face,” Nick said. “It’s very hard to get my attention when I’m driving.”
As Nick’s driving gets better and better, the team has become more ambitious.
“We’ve never been to the world competition,” Whitehouse said. “But we’re aspiring to this year.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973