Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu (center) with GearChangers coach Shweta Ruparel (left) and team members Veer Ruparel, Milan Parikh and Aalind Tyagi. The team won the U.S. national championship and competed at Robocup2019 in Sydney, Australia, this month. Not pictured are team members Salar Sheriff and Emin Dagli.

Much of the groundwork for the GearChangers robotics team’s world championship trip to Australia was laid in a West Windsor basement.

The GearChangers—High North students Emin Dagli, Milan Parikh, Veer Ruparel, Salar Sheriff, Aalind Tyagi and coach Shweta Ruparel (Veer’s mother)—met after school for hours each session at the Ruparel home.

Their meticulous work together resulted in a national championship in New York in late May that earned the five and their coach a trip to the RoboCup2019 world championships in Sydney, Australia, during the first week of July.

And while the team didn’t come away with a world championship, they still feel they came away as winners.

“At the end of the day, though, it was all a learning experience,” Sheriff said. “We realized how much the world level of robotics is different than the U.S. level.

“Although I thought our performance was good, after going there and seeing all the other projects, it really inspired us to think of greater ideas. It was a completely different thing, the international competition and national competition. I think we learned a lot in that way.”

The five got their start in robotics years ago with First Lego League competitions that were sponsored by their school. By the time they moved up to Community Middle School they were ready for a bigger competition. They came close to winning nationals a year ago, but as eighth graders (Parikh was a freshman at North) they made a jump.

“Last year, our reviews we got for improving was that you have to make your performance flawless,” Ruparel said. “We saw one group that had a flawless performance and they won with that, and we were just a little behind.

He said that this year the team chose a concept they were comfortable with. “One that we could really work on and grasp well,” he said. “It really worked out for us at nationals.”

Veer Ruparel, Aalind Tyagi, Milan Parikh, Salar Sheriff and Emin Dagli with their “swarm” robots.

The GearChangers built their project based on the concept of swarm robotics—the coordination of multiple compact robots.

They designed nine robots that featured programmable LED lights to simulate the busy lights and movement in New York City.

The team had become more interested in swarm robotics after a watching a video and seeing how the concept was catching on globally.

“For the 2018 Winter Olympics, they used swarm robotics,” Dagli said. “They used drones to make shapes and patterns in the skies.” He said there’s also talk about using the nano-robots for delicate medical proceedures, like microsurgery.

The idea was a hit at nationals where it went flawlessly for the GearChangers. They topped the other competitors to advance to the RoboCup in the Preliminary Division for the youngest and least experienced competitors. There are two divisions for older, more experienced teams.

“Last year we knew how it felt to not reach the world level,” Sheriff said. “This year we learned from our mistakes and used those to get us to worlds.”

The team feels the same coming out of the world championships this year. They are looking to do better next year at the international level.

“The team is totally inspired and excited to build something really innovative the next time,” said Shweta Ruparel. “As far as the technology, we were quite advanced.”

The GearChangers feel more confident after seeing the sort of technology and projects that others did.

“Everyone in the U.S. uses very similar technologies,” Tyagi said. “When you start going international, there are different types of technologies that different countries use. It makes a pretty big difference in how the performance turns out.”

The way teams present a project is also important. The GearChangers saw how crucial it was for the competition.

“You need a theme that engages with the audience,” Tyagi said. “Without that, your performance is kind of meaningless, because the audience doesn’t know what’s going on and neither do the judges.”

He added that the judges behave like an audience, and engaging the audience and combining technologies is important.

“This swarm robotics is a new concept that not a lot of people know,” Ruparel said. “And we showed that in our performance. We did it well in our opinion, so a lot of people will understand what swarm robotics is now and maybe they’ll try next year.”

He added that they are confident with swarm robotics and wanted to show people the new concept, and he hoped they liked it.

The GearChangers also enjoy working with each other on projects and entering competitions.

Sherrif said its always better when people like what they’re working on and who they’re working with.

“I’ve found if a team is forced together with people you don’t like it might not go so well,” he said. “But since we’re all very good friends, that really plays a role in how everything is done. We all start to accept each other’s ideas, and we all like each other as friends so it’s easier to work around and with each other.”

The students need each other to make the best project possible.

“It’s hard to make one robot just by yourself, let alone nine,” said Dagli. “We found the teamwork aspect of it really helped us work faster and more precisely.”

Added Parikh: “A lot of times what we’d do as a team is split up on a problem or designate a pair of people to a specific problem and another group to another problem.”

He said that towards the end of the project, the team members would come back together, discuss their progress and the go back to work.

“We would try to find our own solutions to whatever the problem would be and then tell the whole group,” he said. “A lot of times we’d talk about what to do, what’s next, instead of just working, and how we could fix this or that.”

Each of the students brings something unique to the group, with their assorted strengths blending together to create a championship project.

“We try to let each other work on the aspects of robotics that we like more,” Sheriff said.

He and Tyagi are good at the software side of things, so they did the coding for things like the robots’ movements.

Ruparel and Dagli, meanwhile, are better with hardware, and they were responsible for building the robots and other mechanical aspects.

“In the middle, we’d always switch it up to make sure we knew what was going on,” Sheriff said. “Even though I was on software, I made sure to help out in hardware so I knew what was going on.

“If you completely isolate the two things, you’re going to end up with something that you don’t know how it works and that wouldn’t be too if something goes wrong. We practiced so if something went wrong in our robot, everyone on the team knew how to fix it even if it wasn’t our role. We tried to split it up and make sure everybody knew at the same time.”

In addition to showing off their own project, the GearChangers found value in their interactions with their international competition. The collaboration was just as important for their futures as the competition was.

Tyagi said that besides Robocup, there was also a challenge called Super team, which called for them to work with a team from another country.

“We worked with the team from Israel and from Italy,” he said. “Despite being from different countries and having different technologies there, we realized how similar our performances and our technologies could be.

“With one of the teams, there’s something called a Bluetooth module where you can communicate with the robots via Bluetooth, and we all use the same Bluetooth module and code for it. We realized despite being from different countries, we all have similarities in the end to combine to create a bigger and better performance.”

Creating a bigger and better project is the goal for next year. The GearChangers spoke to a number of teams that had improved in their second year at worlds, and that is their goal going forward.

“Next year, we can go to worlds again,” Ruparel said. “In worlds, we saw a lot of teams that were experienced from last year going to worlds their second time. They were really experienced because we saw their performance and they really improved on what they did.”

The group will head back to his basement to plan their next moves. They will be looking for an even more dynamic project with a new focus to win nationals again and do even better at next year’s international RoboCup.

“The team is really hard working,” Shweta Ruparel said. “They’re pretty committed. They’re all passionate. All these factors make a good project and good idea work. I’ve been coaching them and they have been working in front of me so I see that. They can do very good in the future.”