Before Zachariah Apodaca and Brandon and Benjamin Sandoval arrived in China for an international robotics competition, the Española-area teenagers worried about weight limits.
Together, their robot — designed to water rows of plants in a greenhouse, and all of the motors, pumps, and tools that go with it — were well over the 100-pound threshold for extra airline baggage fees.
So the team secured as many fragile parts that could fit into the heavy-duty travel case donated by the Española Fire Department and separated the less-delicate but still precious cargo in an assortment of suitcases.
Once in a Beijing hotel room, they nervously opened everything. To their relief, nothing was broken.
“We had little wind turbines and solar panels and materials for a miniature greenhouse. Definitely some stuff that could have been messed up during the flight,” Benjamin Sandoval said. “Thankfully, TSA didn’t mess with anything. Everything was in one piece.”
Once the Española trio arrived with equipment intact, they showed off design ingenuity and some New Mexico pride while taking first place this summer in an entrepreneurship competition featuring some 35 teams from 15 countries. Against a slew of robots with complex code and functions, the team from Española relied on a clear and practical design to impress the judges.
“Our bot is simple. You don’t need to be smart with technology to see how it works. A lot of the other competitors had different bots that were super complex and hard to understand how it works,” said Brandon Sandoval, a 14-year-old freshman at Mesa Vista High School, who came up with the idea for the robot while heading home from the Española YMCA with his dad one evening in January.
“I got the idea from how important farming is to Northern New Mexico, but farming is universal,” he said. “Everyone around the world does it. I think that gave us an edge.”
Brandon and Benjamin Sandoval are brothers whose father, Ben Sandoval, is the director of the Española YMCA teen center, which hosts an after-school robotics program. That’s where the Sandovals and Apodaca started working on their winning project — the “Plan-tastic Spray Bot.”
The robot, which can be programmed to be autonomous or remote-controlled and solar- or wind-powered, uses a pump and sprinkler system to spray water to either side of the track that guides it between rows of plants in a greenhouse.
The competition in Guangzhou, China, was organized by RoboRAVE International, which was started in 2001 by Russ Fisher-Ives, then head of sciences at Rio Rancho High School, with 25 students. Since then, it has grown to host thousands of students in competitions across the country and world that are broken down into different events.
In China, the team from Española entered an entrepreneurial event that asked competitors to design a functioning robot and the business plan around it.
Between visits from judges, the Sandovals and Apodaca attempted to explain their invention to local high school students across the language barrier.
“We would try to explain our robot in English, and a lot of people they would look at us like, ‘What are you saying?’ ” Benjamin Sandoval said. “We figured out we could just demonstrate our robot, and people would understand the project even if they spoke no English.”
The Sandovals and Apodaca did not find out they won first place until they had returned to New Mexico. And while other competitors brought their home country’s flag, the team from Española brought a New Mexico flag.
“It felt really good to carry that flag with us and represent our state and Española,” Brandon Sandoval said. “We were excited about winning, but it was more about having fun and showing what New Mexico can do.”