Nina Beattie, of Orr’s Island, holds one of the differential swerve systems that drive her team’s robot. Beattie, a junior at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, competes on the school’s robotics team, the Outliers. (Jon Amory photo)

A 5-foot-tall robot races across the floor. Wheels on one side lift off the ground as it corners hard. For a split second the robot looks sure to tip over, then it settles and zooms on toward its target. The robot pauses for just a moment as it extends a spindly arm to grasp a small yellow traffic cone. Then it speeds back the way it came, bouncing violently off another robot before carefully dropping the cone onto a metal pole.

Helping at the robot’s controls is Nina Beattie, of Orr’s Island, a junior at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland.

Her team, the Outliers, was one of just two teams from Maine competing against robots from around the world at the FIRST Robotics Championships. The championships took place in late April in Houston.

FIRST, an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, has been organizing these competitions for 30 years. High school teams build robots from scratch, under the guidance of adult mentors. The matches pit three robots against three others, requiring teams to play cooperatively as well as competitively to succeed.

The rules of the matches change each year. FIRST releases its guidelines in January and teams have six weeks to design and build a robot.

For 2023, each robot must pick up cones and soft blocks, then deposit them at a designated station. The format looks like it could be a testing ground for robots that would work in warehouses.

Beattie joined the team in 2022 as a sophomore. She hadn’t thought much about robots before that. She didn’t even know Baxter Academy had a robotics team before her first year. She chose the school for its engineering and math classes.

A teacher noticed her talent for computer-aided design, one of the skills FIRST teams use while designing and building their robots. One of Beattie’s friends wanted to join the team, so she went along.

The Outliers’ lead mentor, Jon Amory, an engineering teacher at the Waynflete School in Portland, says Beattie immediately took to the robots’ mechanical systems. “She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, to take things apart and see how they work,” Amory says.

Amory and other mentors offer ideas, but the students are responsible for designing, making and testing the parts that make it onto the robot.

Beattie was instrumental in developing one of their robot’s most complicated mechanical systems, known as a differential swerve drive. A combination of gears and electric motors at each wheel allows the robot to move and turn in any direction. Amory says he was impressed to see Beattie, as a sophomore, become the team’s expert for a system that was completely foreign to her just a few months prior.

Making a differential swerve drive work well is so difficult that The Outliers are one of only a few teams — if not the only team — that operate the system at the speeds they do, according to Amory. Judges in Houston recognized that, giving Beattie’s team the Innovation in Control Award in their division for using differential swerve drives.

“It feels good to have them recognized at a (world championship) level,” Beattie says. The team spent two years designing, building and programming that part of their robot.

Beattie plays other roles on the team, too. Amory praises her decision-making and ability to think through problems, skills she uses during matches to decide what plays the robot and its partners should make next. Outside of competitions, she’s one of the team’s managers, assigning tasks and making sure people go where they need to.

She has also helped the team organize outreach events, showing off what the robot can do for younger students.

The collaborative format of FIRST matches seems to bleed into other aspects of the endeavor. The Outliers started as a Baxter Academy team, but this year became a community team, with members from the Waynflete School, Deering High School, and the Maine Coast Waldorf School.

The team shares a practice space with a full replica of a FIRST playing field at the Maine Mall in South Portland. Teams from South Portland High School, Bonny Eagle High School, Falmouth and Gorham high schools, and even southern New Hampshire use the space.

The Outliers achieved their 2023 goal: to make it to the world championships in Houston. Unfortunately, the team’s first two days of matches there did not go as they had hoped. They had five wins and five losses after 10 matches, meaning they did not automatically qualify for the next round of playoffs.

But the format of FIRST competitions allows higher-ranked teams to select lower-ranked teams as part of their playoff coalition, and The Outliers made it in with the fourth-seeded team. They won their first two playoff matches, even beating the top-seeded team. A second meeting with that team in the semifinals didn’t go their way, and The Outliers exited after losing consecutive matches against their division’s top two teams.

Amory says the team played well, even in their losses, and had a string of bad luck, with partner robots breaking down in different ways.

Beattie is proud of how far the team made it at the world championships. The Outliers were a relatively young team this year, and she hopes that she and her teammates will keep gaining experience in 2024 — and that they’ll enjoy building a cool new robot.

For herself, she’s thinking more broadly than just next season. Beattie says she learned valuable lessons this year from serving in a leadership role. “That will carry out into next year in everything, not just robotics,” she says.

Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.