A participating robotics team test their latest iteration in the Agrobotics challenge during the San Antonio Rodeo.
A robotics team tests its latest iteration in the Agrobotics Challenge during the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Thanks to their ingenious use of duct tape to harvest corn, five high school students took home the top prize Friday in an annual competition at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

Christian Dieterich and his teammates on his Denton County 4-H robotics team had three hours to survey a gameboard, build and program robots, and guide them through a series of challenges Friday at the Agrobotics Challenge, a statewide competition for 4-H and Future Farmers of America students to develop robots for agricultural applications.

No, the robots were not full-scale, nor did they harvest actual corn – just small inch-sized foam blocks – but the idea is to expose students who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in agriculture to the ways in which STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – plays a part in modern farming.

“There’s not something technologically related with some of the contests here,” said Derrick Bruton, the superintendent of the contest. “So we wanted to find something that not only meets them in the middle with technology but also teaches them about agriculture, because a lot of these kids don’t come from an agricultural background.”

A team of students work together to tackle their objective during the competition.
A team of students works together to tackle an objective during the competition. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Technology is vital to modern agricultural operations with routine deployment of temperature and moisture sensors, drones to photograph the land, GPS technology, and robotics, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today’s robots are being programmed to harvest more crops and at a faster rate than their human counterparts.

Seventy-six teams registered for the Agrobotics Challenge this year. That’s up 375 percent from the inaugural edition of the contest in 2016, when just 16 teams signed up. That year, the competition was held in a 10-by-12-foot room, said Jana Wilson, an agriculture teacher at New Waverly High School in East Texas near Huntsville.

4-H and FFA robotics teams take to solving simulated farming problems. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This year, the contest took up a whole barn at the stock show grounds complete with an audience full of parents, family members, and friends.

When he joined 4-H at the behest of his parents as a homeschooled middle school student, Dieterich wasn’t pleased to be joining a club he thought exclusively involved raising livestock. Quickly, though, he learned about the robotics side of agriculture and the expanding list of competitions kids in 4-H programs can enter to test their engineering skills.

“I’m not going to lie, my parents kind of forced me into 4-H,” he said. “I didn’t really want anything to do with it, but after a year in it participating in the different contests and finding out that it really wasn’t what I thought it was … I found robotics was something I could participate in in this.”

Dieterich and his teammates earned a $12,000 scholarship by winning first place in the senior division of the contest. The team will split it five ways – $2,400 for each member of the team.

Each team in the competition can comprise anywhere from three to six members. Children ages 8-13 are eligible to participate in the junior division, and kids ages 14-18 compete in the senior division.

The object of the contest is to design and build a Lego Mindstorm robot using motors, sensors, levers, arms, and claws that can maneuver and lift items to complete the various challenges: harvesting corn in a field, removing insects harmful to crops (but keeping the good ones), and broadcasting seed, for example. The teams are scored based on a point system on how well they complete each of the challenges.

The teams know nothing about the challenges before 9 a.m., when the competition officially kicks off and the teams begin building their robots. Scanning the scene, Dieterich and his teammates kicked around a few ideas of how to tackle some of the more challenging obstacles.

“We were looking at the boards before the game and thinking this could be one of the worst ones yet,” he said, referring to the degree of difficulty of the challenge. It was Dieterich’s third time participating in the Agrobotics Challenge. But the team decided to stick duct tape on the front of its robot to collect the corn, or yellow foam blocks, on the game board, a resourcefully clever method Bruton called “impressive.”

The teams bring their own supplies, and the Denton County natives were thanking their lucky stars they brought a giant roll of duct tape with them to San Antonio.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.