Rock N’ Robotics: The enthusiasms of Bobby VanNess

Bobby Van Ness won second place for his hard rocking electric guitar performance. Photo by Konrad


Bobby VanNess was late to the Hudson Valley Mar. 20 talent show because he was mentoring at the First Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) NY Tech Valley Regional Robotics Competition, held at RPI.

The engineering science student still captured second place in the talent show for a rigorous electric guitar solo. He managed to fit his talent show performance around his commitment to robotics, a reflection of his life the last four years.

“If you can imagine, I don’t end up with a whole lot of downtime,” said VanNess, who balances robotics, music, school, and career goals.

VanNess has played in about seven talent shows, including the Hudson Valley Talent Show. “It wasn’t the biggest show I’ve played at, but it was definitely one of the more fun shows I’ve done so far,” he said. “I always look up, and it’s cool to see cell phone cameras out.”

At that show, VanNess played instrumental rock by Joe Satriani, which he likes to play since he doesn’t have a band of his own. “I really only have enough time and availability to do my own thing with the guitar and play with the backing track. I never had enough time to coordinate with a band,” he said.

VanNess has long been a musician. He has played guitar since fifth grade. He also played alto saxophone in wind and jazz bands until 11th grade.

Over time, VanNess has become less nervous about performing. “I remember back to middle school in the jazz band to the ninth grade talent show at school, when I would have a solo. I wouldn’t screw it up, but I would certainly be nervous, and I wasn’t fully confident at that point. But I’ve played so many different shows at so many different places, it can’t bother me anymore,” he said.

He now feels positive nervous energy during his performances. “I still go up there and get a slight shiver, but that’s the fun part of it. It’s good to go out of your comfort zone and always take it up one more notch.”

VanNess reports playing guitar about five to six hours every week, but since 2011, music has been largely eclipsed by robotics. VanNess said he has been unable to play regularly in a band due to his robotics commitments. He said that during every season that he participated on Shenendehowa FIRST Team 20, The Rocketeers, he put in about 250 to 300 hours of construction time over 16 weeks.

Robotics entered VanNess’s life by chance, with a 9th-grade English class assignment to write to clubs he was interested in joining. “Just by pure dumb luck, I guess, I found [robotics] to be interesting, and looking back on it now, there was a short paragraph hardly relevant to what the club was actually about, but I somehow managed to get into the meetings,” recalled VanNess.

VanNess attended the club’s third meeting of the year, thinking it might be too late for him to join. Instead, he said, “Robotics became the biggest part of my high school life.”

At Shenendehowa High School, VanNess was the main driver on FIRST Team 20, leading as many as 110 students. “That’s more pressure than any sort of musical performance,” he said. “It’s quite a rush to get everything finished.”

At FIRST competitions in 2012, in Hartford, Conn., and in 2013 and 2014, in St. Louis, Team 20 placed as far as the quarterfinals out of 400 teams, putting Shenendehowa in the top 20 percent of competitors.

VanNess said that most of the team’s success was in his senior year in 2014, when Team 20 won the FIRST NY Tech Valley and Finger Lakes Regional Robotics Competitions.

“Going into the championship event, we were one of the best teams in the world. People were definitely watching us,” he said. The team’s robot, Eclipse, made it to the quarterfinals of the Archimedes Division at the World Championships in St. Louis.

VanNess said that robotics has motivated him to pursue a mechanical engineering degree. He intends to transfer to RPI from Hudson Valley. VanNess landed a scholarship to RPI through his work in the robotics competition but declined it because, he said, it wouldn’t have been enough to cover his tuition.

He still spends time mentoring robotics teams in the area. “I mentor teams, probably a little more than I should,” he said. “It’s rewarding to teach students to do things on their own. A lot of these kids haven’t even touched power tools. I get them working with drill presses, band saws, manual lathes and I even get a few of them working with CNC [Computer Numerical Control] equipment.”

At the FIRST NY Tech Valley Regional Robotics Competition at RPI, VanNess was the strategy coordinator for a team of about ten students from Cambridge. The team reached the semifinals.

Currently, VanNess works an internship weekdays at Advanced Manufacturing Techniques in Clifton Park. “I like engineering and I like most forms of it, so I figured if I had a degree, that opens a broad range of different fields. Then I’ll [have] good options and be able to choose what I want to do when I get out of college,” said VanNess.

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