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When Robots Play in the Mall
“Is this a mall? Are we having a robotics competition in an abandoned mall?” I wonder as we walk in. No one answers but they don’t really need to. My doubt fades away as I see another team down the long hallway searching for an elevator to bring their robot downstairs. I immediately know this will be an unusual day.
We join forces with the other team to find a way downstairs. It occurs to me that, though strange, the mall really is an appropriate place for a robotics competition, because in many ways robotics teams are like shopkeepers: we compete against each other, but we also have to work together or else we all lose.
After a surreal walk past empty shops and a childless play pen, we ride down a glass elevator with the robot, hoping its weight doesn’t break the elevator. The robots have to shoot Frisbees and climb monkey bars, so they need powerful engines, and powerful engines are very heavy. Thankfully the ride is short. Then we find our way to our team area, in the middle of a large shop across from the candy cane columned food court decorated with hanging fish. I wonder if the decorator was a Dr. Seuss fan.
Our team, The Red Plague, sets up our pit, where we keep our robot between competition rounds and do minor repairs. The engineers bustle around the robot fixing this and that as if they were shopkeepers preparing displays for the Black Friday rush. They tuck away loose wires like shirt sleeves, leaving the important things accessible while the main structure of the robot, like a display shelf, could probably survive a war.
“All drivers to the competition field for the drivers meeting,” the loudspeakers blare. Our drive team, Kristen, Ian, Matt and Tanner, finish up what they’re working on and leave for the meeting. Not long after, the speakers announce that the opening ceremony will be starting soon, so the rest of us head off to find the competition field.
The competition field is fairly far from the pit, straight down a very long hallway. On the way I notice that not all the stores are completely empty. There is an arcade, a shoe store, and an international gift shop. I wonder whether they are closed but haven’t cleared out their stock yet, or if they’re still in business.
Just past Denno’s International Gifts, the arena is finally in sight. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. The field itself is normal, the big gray carpet, the two walls with three goals and one Frisbee loading station each, surrounded by safety barriers and netting to protect the crowd. That is where the familiar ends.
The competition field is in the middle of the mall’s center court. Instead of the usual stadium seating, there are only a few bleachers surrounded by four pergolas. The judge’s stand is a small gazebo with white columns and a blue roof with big yellow flying pig statues around the top. Behind that is an empty water fountain with old lights and a vacuum sitting in it. There is akiddy carousel on the outskirts of the court and another glass elevator. The whole room is surrounded by the second floor balcony.
The competition area is crowded with the twenty-four teams. Their vivid t-shirts remind me of a candy store: Twizzler reds, cotton candy pinks, and grape lollipop purples, all packed tightly together on the bleachers without a seat left, so we decide to go upstairs to watch from the half-empty balcony. We find the escalators down a hallway that seems to have a musical theme; piano key lights illuminate the ceiling. The escalators are off but we use them anyway. We find the best view of the field from the balcony that we can, unfortunately the pergolas and columns prevent any perfect view of the field.
A man walks out onto the field wearing a tropical shirt and carrying a microphone. After a few words with the sound technicians, he begins, “Welcome teams to Ohio’s first FRC championship!” and then briefs us on how the day will run. Each team gets to participate in three practice rounds, and then we will get to pick our three-team alliances. After that there will be a lunch break followed by the elimination rounds. After he finishes talking, we sing the national anthem then all the teams rush back to their pits to get their robots.
In a little while the teams are all back again for the practice rounds and line up for the practice matches like last minute Christmas shoppers at the registers, wheeling their robots forward on carts waiting for their turns. Our team is decked out in their Red Plague themed outfits. We are wearing scrubs, have syringe shaped pens in our pockets, and the word “Infected” stamped on our hands. Even the robot is in character; its cart is a gurney and it is plugged in to a nuts and bolts filled IV. Other teams have themes as well. The Decabots are all wearing tutus, even the guys, which fit in perfectly with the circus-like aspects of the mall.
After a few false starts, the first practice round begins. No robot has any major technical difficulties, and though the officials are slow at first, they get the hang of it and we actually get ahead of schedule. That is unusual for a robotics competition.
After the practice rounds comes one of the most nerve-racking parts of any robotics competition: choosing alliances. In a robotics round, it is always three teams verses three, which we call an alliance. In practice rounds, the alliances are random, but for the elimination rounds, the top ranked teams get to choose their allies. The crowd tenses as the top ranked team is called forward to pick their alliance partner. Then the next highest ranking team picks theirs, and so on. By the time our team representative, Ian, gets called forward, all the teams we were hoping to ally with are already picked. Despite this, we choose two teams and try to make the best of it.
Our alliance prepares for the elimination rounds. They meet together to discuss strategy, double check every piece of the robots, then go back to the field. In order to move on to the second set of eliminations, our alliance must win two of our first three rounds. Our first match is against the top alliance. The drive team does great, but it is not enough and we lose the first match. Our alliance just could not shoot enough Frisbees into the goals.
As our alliance waits for the next round, we chat with one another to ease the building tension. Finally, it is time to bring our robot on the field for possibly its final match ever. The teams exchange a few encouraging words with each other then get into position. They hear the start buzzer and rush into action. Our robot shoots in Frisbee after Frisbee until the final bell announces the end of the round. We wait in anticipation of the final score.
“The judges have finished calculating the points . . . 87-93 in favor of the blue alliance!” the announcer says. We lost by five points. We shake hands with our alliance partners and tell them they did a good job. We roll our robot back to our pit and pack up, then return to the arena to cheer on the other teams. We are not too upset about losing. We faced the best teams in the state and tried our hardest. There are plenty more competitions to come next season, and even though we did not win, we had a great time. Not many people can say they have been in an abandoned mall, let alone participated in a robotics tournament in one.
Then, when the final match of the day ends, we head out. I drink in all the sights as we leave the building. I want to remember every detail of this experience: the juxtaposition of caution tape strewn shops and Frisbee shooting robots, the blacked out store windows, cheering crowds, store front security gates, and the arcade games with flashing lights. I love the mystery of it, that a mall in the third largest city in Ohio would be abandoned. I took one last glimpse at the play pen as we walked out the door and thought how perfectly it represented the entire enigma—where parents used to watch their children play, now there are only robots and dust.