The Berkeley High robot, dubbed Salser's Boy, was eliminated in the semifinals. Photos: Lance Knobel

If you only heard the sounds coming from the Wozniak Lounge at the University of California Berkeley’s Soda Hall on Saturday, you’d wonder if the engineering department had decided to host a martial arts competition: cries of, “Get it!”, or “Go to defense!”, mingled with loud cheers and groans.

Turn the corner into the room, however, and you discover 200-odd people cheering on a high school robotics competition. Twelve teams from nine East Bay high schools had entered the third annual Pioneers in Engineering Robotics Competition. This year’s competition pitted the programmable and drivable robots in a “pillow fight”, where they had to pick up pillows and deliver them into cages on the “playing field”.

Morning qualification rounds were used to rank the 12 teams, from BHS, Albany, Acalanes, Ralph J. Bunche, Head-Royce, Bishop O’Dowd, Pinole Valley, El Cerrito (with two teams) and Oakland Tech (with three teams). The top six teams then were able to choose their partners for the afternoon elimination rounds (robots competed in teams of two).

The BHS robotics team controls Salser's Boy in its first elimination round

In the competition rounds, four robots lined up for furious three-minute rounds. Berkeley High’s robot, dubbed Salser’s Boy after physics teacher Stephen Salser, had finished fifth in the morning, and the team chose Head-Royce as their ally. They narrowly lost their first elimination round 3-2, but came through the loser’s bracket to get to the semifinal round, where they lost a tough match, 3-0.

“I’m really impressed by the robots,” said Terry Johnson, a lecturer in the bioengineering department at UC Berkeley, and a judge for the non-sporting part of the robotics competition. Robots are judged for the quality and ingenuity of their engineering and programming. “When I saw the rules for this year’s competition I thought this might be too hard, but I was completely wrong. The attitude of all the students has been exemplary.”

The BHS robot deposits a pillow into the gold cage for a point

Before the afternoon competition began Johnson told Berkeleyside that team seven was the one to beat. And so it proved. One of the Oakland Tech teams had created a true monster of the pillow fight circuit — it was faster, more maneuverable, more certain to grab the pillow, and unerring in its ability to deliver the pillow into the cage (a downfall for many of the teams). The semifinals and finals (which pitted two of the Oakland Tech teams against each other) were a formality when team seven got going.

The PiE competition was a response to the lack of high school robotics in the East Bay. According to Robert Luan, who competed for BHS in the first competition two years ago, and now is one of the organizers at UC Berkeley, contest “was the most memorable experience of my entire time in high school”. Luan said it takes about $15,000 to stage the competition, which receives sponsorship from the engineering department, Google, Lockheed Martin, Qualcomm, Tau Beta Pi (the engineering honor society), and Eta Kappa Nu (the electrical engineering honor society). High schools can compete for $100.

This compares, Luan explained, to the more famous FIRST robotics competition where individual entires can cost $10,000 to $15,000, well beyond the budget of most high schools.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...