Robotics Team Unbeaten, Heading to World Championship with High Hopes 

Cal Poly’s Gear Slingers gather at the end of the VEX U competition at Mt. San Antonio College, where they beat 11 teams to secure first place. They are preparing to host Cal Poly's first official VEX U contest on March 2 before heading to Texas in April.

Cal Poly’s Gear Slingers are ready to conquer the world.  

In an unprecedented achievement for the competitive robotics squad, the Gear Slingers have remained undefeated against other college and university teams in this year’s VEX U competitions, marking a first in the squad’s five-year history.  

Adding to their list of firsts, the Gear Slingers are set to make their debut at the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas, Texas, where seven members will compete with their custom-machined robots against elite international teams at the largest robotics competition in the world.  

“We are happy with our robots and are hoping to put up a good fight,” said Garrett Schnack, third-year mechanical engineering major and project lead. “Just being able to go is a huge win for us; it gets our name out there and allows us to represent Learn by Doing.”  

The Gear Slingers – a project of Cal Poly’s Robotics Club – successfully obtained a student travel grant from the College of Engineering, securing $10,500 for their trip to Texas, scheduled from April 28 to 30.   

Before embarking on their Worlds quest, the team is organizing Cal Poly’s first official VEX U competition on March 2, set to be the largest event in the state in the past five years. Fifteen teams from California and one from Arizona are poised to participate, offering the campus community the chance to see both Cal Poly’s team and others from the region show off their skills.  

“We’re thrilled to showcase the robots we’ve built and designed, demonstrating why we’ve been a dominant force in this season’s competition,” Schnack said. “We are feeling really confident as we prepare for Worlds.” 

Cal Poly's Gear Slingers compete with their robots at Mt. San Antonio College. They stand next to the match field as they control their robots in the driver-controlled part of the contest
Cal Poly’s Gear Slingers compete against MTSAC 2 at the Mt. San Antonio College VEX U robotics event. The Gear Slingers have gone undefeated this season and will head to the world championship in Texas at the end of April.

Being prepared pays off 

The VEX U college and university competition sees over 200 teams build their robots to tackle a new challenge each year, preparing for a season that culminates in a series of regional events with opportunities to qualify for the world championship. 

In the 2024 game, “Over Under,” two teams, each with two robots, compete in matches that include a 45-second autonomous period and a 1-minute, 15-second driver-controlled period. The aim is to navigate a divided game field, scoring as many goals as possible using Triballs (triangular objects), with a final challenge of outclimbing opponents on an elevation bar as the match clock winds down.  

The Gear Slingers beat 11 teams at their season opener at Mt. San Antonio College, securing first place, and replicated their success at CSU Northridge, achieving an overall record of 20-0 this year.  

“We’ve been dominating,” said Schnack, noting the score of their most recent finals match was 170-70.  

In previous years, the Gear Slingers typically ranked around the middle, a result Schnack believes stems from teams assembling their robots just days before their competition.  

“This year, we invested considerable time in the design and finished our work much earlier,” said Schnack, emphasizing that the team members’ passion and experience have significantly contributed to their success.”  

Toothless and Hiccup, the Gear Slingers' robots, are posed next to two trophies from a recent competition
The Gear Slingers’ robots, Toothless and Hiccup, are displayed next to their trophies from a VEX U event at CSU Northridge.

How to train your robot 

The Gear Slingers possess extensive robotics expertise, with most members having participated in FIRST or VEX competitions during high school. 

They leverage their collective experiences to design and build the ideal pair of robots for the contests that feature both skills challenges and standard matches. Teams can choose to engineer their robots specifically for either the direct competition or skills challenge.  

“There are several theories on building a robot, but we tailor ours more for the head-to-head competitions,” said Jonathan Jones, a second-year electrical engineering major.  

This year, the Gear Slingers personalized each robot to perform specific tasks during a match, assigning them names inspired by the “How to Train Your Dragon” film series. Toothless specializes in lifting Triballs from the ground into its intake system before pushing them beneath the goal. Meanwhile, Hiccup is adept at propelling Triballs toward the corner.  

Teams must adhere to specific dimensions and use VEX-provided motors and electronics, yet they face no restrictions on manufacturing methods.  

“We are one of the few teams with robots that are made entirely out of custom-machined parts, which has earned us recognition wherever we go,” Schnack said. “Most other teams have a couple of custom parts here and there but mainly use the standard VEX components.”  

In a nod to Cal Poly’s philosophy, Learn by Doing is inscribed on one of their custom parts.  

The Gear Slingers’ computer programming experts have played a crucial role in readying their robots for autonomous operation during the match’s first phase, a key component of the team’s game plan. This effort, alongside the collective achievements of the team, which includes mechanical, electrical and computer science majors, has led to a significant enhancement in the robots’ skill and speed.  

“Together, we’ve come up with a winning strategy, and we know our robots are really good,” Schnack said.  

Follow the team on Instagram @gearslingerscpslo and visit their website here.   

By Emily Slater

Cal Poly’s Gear Slingers mark the moment they were named the winners at the Mt. San Antonio College VEX U competition in January. Project lead Garrett Schnack displays the trophy next to their winning robots, Toothless and Hiccup.

See the team in action 

Everyone is invited to watch Cal Poly’s team compete against other California teams during the Gear Slingers Open Invitational 2024 on March 2.  

The competition is scheduled to take place at the Bonderson Projects Center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Match schedules will be posted around Bonderson on the morning of the event. 

The Gear Slingers are excited to host Cal Poly’s first official VEX U competition, seeking to provide California teams with another opportunity to qualify for the global contest.  

“As competitive as we are in our own region, we are still rooting for our local teams and want as many as possible to qualify for Worlds,” said Schnack, who hopes to exceed the current count of three teams slated to attend.