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After devastating fire, SLO High robotics team rebuilds

After fire, SLO-Botics team uses French Hospital space to regroup for competition

The San Luis Obispo High School Robotics Club, called SLO-Botics, has spent two weeks rebuilding to prepare for a January competition at Cal Poly. All of the club’s robots were destroyed in a Dec. 8, 2016, fire.
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The San Luis Obispo High School Robotics Club, called SLO-Botics, has spent two weeks rebuilding to prepare for a January competition at Cal Poly. All of the club’s robots were destroyed in a Dec. 8, 2016, fire.

When the San Luis Obispo High School SLO-Botics team found out about the suspected arson that destroyed their lab early in the morning on Dec. 8, some members were so stunned that they couldn’t believe it.

But when the robotics club saw the lab, reality set in. They were upset that their six robots and extra parts were ravaged along with other school computer equipment, said Victor Dekhtyar, an 18-year-old senior who hopes to work for NASA someday.

Dekhtyar had been working on a robot that propelled Nerf darts across the room.

“I had spent some of my own money on that robot,” Dekhtyar said. “It was a bummer.”

Over the past two weeks, however, the students have regrouped, spending about 40 hours to assemble three new robots for a statewide robotics competition taking place Jan. 20 and 21 at Cal Poly.

All three of the robots that the students are working on are capable of moving so far. The team was stunned initially. But I think once they started to see the donations coming in, they realized they would have the support to get to start building again.

Jan Fetcho, San Luis Obispo High Robotics Club coordinator

The team is designing robots that are 1 1/2 feet tall and can be controlled remotely to move in any direction and grasp objects. They’re using space provided by French Hospital Medical Center in its Copeland Health Education Pavilion on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo.

The facility offers meeting rooms to the public as a resource for educational purposes, said Megan Maloney, senior director of marketing and communications at Dignity Health Central Coast, which owns the hospital.

“Like everybody in the community, we were devastated to hear the news,” she said. “So when folks asked us to donate the space, so that they could have a large area, we were more than pleased to do so.”

A fire destroyed the computer lab at San Luis Obispo High School early Thursday morning (Dec. 9, 2016). Arson is the suspected cause, and three former students had been arrested. Here's a look at the damage.

The club is making good progress on its robots, and students should be ready for the competition, said Jan Fetcho, the club’s coordinator and the school’s computer science teacher.

More than $27,000 has been raised through the group’s GoFundMe page to help recover from the losses.

Three former students — Michael Benadiba, Cameron Bratcher and Jacob Ruth — have been charged with arson and burglary in connection with the fire.

The blaze caused $1.8 million in damage. On Tuesday, a judge increased bail from $25,000 to $100,000 for Benadiba and Bratcher because of the high cost for repairs.

The 15-member robotics club had spent a couple of months, working at a much less ambitious pace, to design the robots used in competitions earlier this school year, Fetcho said. Their recent work has been far more intense.

It’s nice because everyone is pitching in to help. Before it was like, ‘They’re just nerds and nobody cares,’ but now it’s like, ‘They do stuff.’

Alyssa Foley, San Luis Obispo High Robotics Club member

“The team was stunned initially,” Fetcho said. “But I think once they started to see the donations coming in, they realized they would have the support to get to start building again. We’re really appreciative to the donors and those who have contributed.”

The club also has received discounted robotics parts from Vex Robotics, which air mailed them free of charge from its headquarters in Greenville, Texas. San Luis Obispo-based iFixit also donated several tool kits for work on the machinery.

The students are preparing for the Vex Robotics Starstruck Tournament, which will be held in January at Cal Poly. Teams are tasked with designing robots that can pick up objects, such as foam stars, and throw them over a fence. To earn extra points, students may use remote controls to suspend their robot on a pole while completing its mission.

Sophomore Alyssa Foley is building one of the three new robots with the guidance of Ian Morse, a Cuesta College student who is a 2012 graduate of San Luis Obispo High and helps mentor the students.

Foley said although the fire was devastating, it has brought welcome attention to the club’s abilities.

“It’s nice because everyone is pitching in to help,” she said. “Before it was like, ‘They’re just nerds and nobody cares,’ but now it’s like, ‘They do stuff.’ 

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