Robots rampage at regionals

The FIRST Stronghold arena consists of a tower for each alliance and five defenses to protect it. (courtesy of FIRST Robotics.)

North, Hill-Murray, Mounds Park kids are gearing up for high-tech contest this weekend

Robots fighting a medieval siege may sound like the plot for a new young adult novel, but it’s actually the premise of a technology competition that is generating growing interest with 14- though 18-year-olds. 
High school students from the region will be gathering in Minneapolis this week to test their robots against those of their opponents on a medieval siege-themed course.

North High School and Hill-Murray High School will be competing in the 10,000 Lakes Regional event, and Mounds Park Academy’s team is entered in the North Star Regional event.

According to the FIRST Robotics Competition, it’s “the ultimate sport for the mind.” Under strict rules, teams of high-school-aged students had six weeks to build and program a robot from a kit of limited parts. These robots compete in field games at events like the upcoming Minnesota 10,000 Lakes Regional and Minnesota North Star Regional competitions.

This year’s game, FIRST Stronghold, requires each team to compete as part of an alliance of three teams. According to the FIRST Robotics’ website, one way robots score points is by breaching opponents’ defenses. There are eight options for defenses. A few examples include a portcullis, a moat and a drawbridge. Each tower is guarded by five defenses; the alliance selects three, the audience selects one and one is a permanently mounted low bar. Each time a defense is breached it is weakened.

Another way to earn points is by scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower. Each boulder that scores weakens the tower. During the final 20 seconds of play, robots can scale the opposing tower to capture it.



North High’s team, #2501 the Bionic Polars, has been competing since 2008. The first year, the team only had six students, but today’s roster includes more than 30 students. They meet Monday through Saturday every week and are sponsored by 3M, Tolerance Tool, Gopher Electronics and the city of Maplewood.

According to senior Nick Plucker, the Bionic Polars began strategizing right after the Stronghold game was revealed Jan. 9. This is Plucker’s fourth year on the team and second year as team captain.

“We designed a custom drive train, consisting of 1-inch high traction wheels. When testing the drive train, we had several students try and push the robot while it moved forward — the robot won,” he said.

The team initially ran into some problems with the motors that move the robot’s shooter up and down, but with two new motors and a chain-driven system, they were able to remedy the problem.

The Bionic Polars have already been tested in competition. They attended Duluth’s Northern Lights Regional competition in early March, where they received fourth place in the elimination round. According to Pluncker, the stakes are higher at the 10,000 Lakes Regional, and the group plans to implement vision tracking to their robot at the competition.

“Vision tracking allows the robot to find the goal and determine the pitch and the speed of the shooter as well as line up the robot. It boosts our accuracy to amazing levels,” Pluncker said.

This year the North High team’s robot is primarily offensive, though Pluncker said the team has learned that it is important to be defensive as well.



This is the Hill-Murray # 4506 PioNerds’ fourth year competing in the FIRST Robotics competition. 

According to math teacher Ben Gapinski, who is the robotics advisor, some of the team members spent extra time this season mentoring middle school students who have recently revived the Lego League team at their Maplewood-based school. FIRST Lego League is the middle school level program in the progression of four programs that make up FIRST, the international science and technology program that also organizes the robotics competition.

The PioNerds are sponsored by Motion Tech Automation, Reiling Construction, the Miller family and the Galler family. Gapinski said that despite their sponsorships, the PioNerds operate on a smaller budget than most of the teams, so the teammates have to carefully plan their purchases. 

“While this is a challenge, it is also great preparation for a real-life project, when you have a real budget and have to make difficult financial decisions,” he said.

Gapinski said that although there have been many challenges with the team’s robot, the challenges make the process fun. One challenge the PioNerds experienced was the width of their robot. After bumpers were added, it was too wide to cross one of the obstacles in the way they had anticipated, so the students had to get creative.

“The students devised a system to lift the entire front end of the robot, to get the frame and bumpers over the obstacle.  It’s essentially like a controlled wheelie,” Gapinski explained.

The PioNerds’ robot is offensive with the ability to breach one of the defenses and launch boulders into the tower. 

“We are hoping to prove ourselves worthy of an alliance selection, because once you’re in the elimination rounds anything can happen,” Gapinski said.


Mounds Park Academy 

This is the fifth year the Mounds Park Academy robotics team # 3926 has competed in the First Robotics competition. The team’s name, the MPArors, incorporates the school’s initials and is pronounced em-pa-rors like “emperor,” which also led to the logo becoming an emperor penguin.

In 2012, the first year they competed, the MPArors won the Rookie Inspiration Award. In 2014, they won the Industrial Design Award, became regional finalists and won FIRST Dean’s List Finalist award. All of their awards were won at Minnesota’s North Star Regional event.

Marc Shapiro teaches science at Mounds Park’s high school and is the lead mentor for the robotics team. He said the teammates learned a lot during this year’s build season, including the technical aspects of engineering and the design process. He also said the kids had especially helpful guidance from their mentors. 

Still, the MPArors had many challenges, though Shapiro said, “This happens with every complex project.”

“We expect to be competitive, with a robust robot that can do what it is designed to do in a reliable and repeatable manner,” he said.

This year’s robot is offensive and the MPArors major corporate sponsors are REELL, SMC, Wyoming Machine, and Merrill Lynch.



The Minnesota 10,000 Lakes Regional event takes place at the Williams Arena/ The Sports Pavilion at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota North Star Regional event will be hosted at Mariucci Arena, which is also on the U campus.

Both events are free and run from Wednesday, April 6, through Saturday, April 9. Because the events are located across the street from each other, visitors can easily experience both competitions.


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at or 651-748-7822.

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