‘Robot! Robot!’ Make way -- the future’s coming through

Robotics teams have team colors, referees in striped shirts, cheerleaders, mascots and their own devoted fan sections. (photos by Linda Baumeister and Holly Wenzel)

Irondale captain Logan Mildenberger, center, is all concentration as he and Matt Sondrol pilot the 2013 version of the KnightKrawler. The sleek machine can usually be counted on to do its job perfectly; it’s the human element that can play it up

This is what a robotics “pit” looks like when things are going wrong; Roseville FireBears Jonathan Hildebrandt and Sara Rieck reflexively put their hands to their heads as mentor Paul Mann mutters “We’re gonna need a drill press.” Fellow mentor and software engineer Keith Rieck explains that on-the-spot troubleshooting is just part of the learning process. “It’s a big puzzle to figure out ... We’re having some bad luck today, but we’re still having a lot of fun.”

Don’t let your guard down at its smile; this is a “Fighting Calculator,” mascot of the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury. From the Hill Murray “PioNerds” to a team whose uniforms are white lab coats, robotics competitors make the most of their “geek cred.”

Madeleine Logeais, of the Visitation Robettes, first all-girl team in the state, works on the team’s robot in the pit.

Students learn much more than engineering

Make no mistake: these kids could hot-wire your car, hack its computer system, weld on enough hardware to make it do somersaults and secure corporate financing for the project in the time it takes you to parallel park it.

And then they’d put it on their college application forms.

Because the skills robotics students have learned -- from computer coding to negotiation, welding to presentation skills -- can power some pretty bright futures.

From the ground up

At a pre-season invitational held at Roseville Area High School, thunderous dance beats and the buzz of excited young voices spilled from the gymnasium into the parking lot. A little Journey, a lot of cheering -- you might think it was an ‘80s dance.

Except for the safety glasses.

This was a chance for FIRST robotics teams to try out new students with veteran machines. After experienced seniors graduated -- many to go on to study computer science or engineering at college -- their younger counterparts were taking the controls.

Each robotics team starts with a list of allowed parts, a budget and guidelines from FIRST, plus a couple of adult mentors.

From there, students designed and built a wheeled, computer-controlled machine to compete in two of three of the 2013 challenges: to fling flying discs into a target zone, to carefully dump them in a bin or to climb a pyramid made of pipes.

Some “bots” featured unfinished plywood and duct tape, which might indicate a last-minute adjustment. Others appeared to have been made for a movie set, with professional finishes; one team got accolades from everyone else for the running lights.

The Robettes, from Visitation in Mendota Heights, built a “dump and climb” robot. “Dumping” was relatively easy, but getting the 109-pound robot to carefully extend its arms, hook securely over a pipe on the pyramid, lift itself and then repeat the process higher and higher was hair-raising for both the Robette drivers and spectators.

Provided everything worked together, the robot could go through the sequence three times, until it dangled overhead.

But it could be challenging. Once, the bot cruised into its third-rung routine on the second rung, dangling in a locked position and unable to get its “elbow” free for another reach. Another time, the driver aimed the bot too far from the middle of the rung for it to be safe ascending. “The bot was at the other end of the arena and turned so she couldn’t see exactly where the middle was,” mentor Logeais explained. “The parallax played her up.”

Meanwhile, at the Irondale pit, the “KnightKrawler” was being put through its paces, watched by team members and Irondale alum Charlie Hofer, a past team captain now studying computer science at the U. Irondale’s engineers had perfected the mechanics of building centrifugal force to fling discs through the air and into a target.

Veteran captain Logan Mildenberger said through the season, the robot could fire flying discs at .7-second intervals with near 100 percent accuracy, if its drivers placed it correctly.

‘Gracious professionalism’

Robotics teams include more than computer programmers. A mechanical unit cuts and mills parts and literally assembles the nuts and bolts of the robot. Electronics teams produce custom-designed circuitboards to control the robot. Students also do PR, marketing and fundraising, which includes presenting their projects to companies who may sponsor them. Drivers train to be able to coordinate the bot’s movements even though one student controls the programming and another the joysticks.

Beyond the team itself, there are costumed mascots, pom-pons, team cheers and plenty of raucous fans at robotics meets, but “no trash-talking,” mentor Logeais explains.

For one thing, the teams who are your competitors in one round may be teamed with you later in a three-team “alliance” match, so it doesn’t pay to make enemies.

It’s what the FIRST organization calls “gracious professionalism’ and “coopertition.”

“Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process... No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either.” It’s a question of empathy, the rules say.

Empathy was on display as Robette Claire Sebastian, comparing war stories with a boy from the Park High School Data Bits, nodded in sympathy at his tale of burning electrodes and black smoke on the competition field. “It’s so awful,” she commiserated. “The smell is worse than burning hair.”

But “no trash talk” doesn’t mean “no confidence.” Irondale veteran Logan Mildenberger can reel off his bot’s stats with computer-like precision and was pleased to be asked about the KnightKrawler’s performance in the first round of the day at RAHS. “We’ve got the second-highest score in the first match,” he said. “But it’ll go higher. Trust me.”

And it did. 

Headed to ‘Worlds’

From the east metro area, Irondale, Visitation, and the Woodbury Math and Science Academy were slated to compete April 23-26 in St. Louis at the World Championships. Competition will be even tougher -- with teams coming from as far away as Australia, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, India and New Zealand -- but the scariest part may be flying the robots to Missouri.

A FIRST-provided letter, apparently meant to be handed to TSA officials, begs in red letters “Please handle this student-built ROBOT with care” and explains the computer controls, electric wiring, battery packs and motor servos inside the bot, as well as its importance to its builders. “It would be quite heartbreaking to find their robot was broken or otherwise destroyed when they arrive at the event.”

Visitation will have an extra task at Worlds -- the Robettes are among nine robotics teams in the world -- out of more than 2,800 -- to be chosen to do alpha testing on a new control system FIRST will launch in the 2015 season. Visitation received the honor “because the team did so phenomenally with programming,” senior and co-captain Kate Azar says matter-of-factly. “You can do C++, Java and LabVIEW, and we’re testing the controller in Java.” After coding, reporting and documenting their success with Java using the new control panel for the FIRST organization, Visitation will become local teams’ resource for information and training.

Need to know

Check out the robotics state championship from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 17 at Williams Arena to see what teams have made of their current challenge: building bots to throw playground balls over trusses and into targets. Irondale and the Math and Science Academy are defending champs from last year. Also at state competition: the Harding KnightBots, Mounds Park Academy’s MPArors and the Tartan Robotitans.

As with all matches,  the work pits on the floor are open for viewing and questions, but spectators must be wearing safety glasses and closed-toe shoes to get onto the floor, per safety regulations.

And be prepared to get out of the way if you hear voices yelling “Robot! Robot! Robot!” as the contestants propel their bots through the crowd.

That’s the sound of the future coming through.

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