Three Upper Peninsula robotics teams make state championships

These are robots used by the Houghton Middle School SnowBots Blue robotics team. The SnowBots were part of the Winning Alliance at a recent state-qualifying tournament. (Photo courtesy of Chris Doig)

MARQUETTE — Robotics are alive and well in the area, and even downstate.

Three Upper Peninsula FIRST Tech Challenge teams have qualified for the state championships set for Dec. 15-16 at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

In the final round of elimination matches at a Nov. 11 state-qualifying tournament in Petoskey, North Star Academy’s Robogators, Bothwell Middle School’s Narwhals and Houghton Middle School’s SnowBots Blue qualified for Battle Creek.

Robotics involves participants participating in a variety of activities. However, it’s more than making moving parts move.

The FIRST acronym is: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. According to firstinspires.org, the FIRST mission is to inspire kids in kindergarten through high school to be science and technology leaders through mentor-based, research and robotics programs that foster “well-rounded life capabilities” including self-confidence, communication and leadership.

In other words, robotics can teach kids basic life skills.

The 2017-18 season’s game is FIRST Relic Recovery, the object of which is to attain a higher score than the opposing alliance by arranging glyphs, which are hard foam cubes, into “cryptoboxes” and completing rows, columns and ciphers.

The game then involves transferring “relics” to the recovery zone, retrieving “jewels,” parking on the balancing stones and navigating to specific parts of the playing field.

At the Petoskey tourney, the Robogators took first place in the Inspire Award competition, what coach Laura Farwell called the biggest honor at the event. The team also placed second for four other awards: the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award, Think Award, Connect Award and Control Award.

The SnowBots took home the Design Award and finished third for the Rockwell Collins Award. The SnowBots Silver rookie team won the Motivate Award.

The Bothwell and Houghton squads were part of the Winning Alliance while the Robogators and Munising’s Electro Stangs were part of the Finalist Alliance.

The biggest news, though, is that three U.P. teams are advancing to the state finals, Farwell said.

“In the past, it’s only been the Robogators,” Farwell said in an email. “My hope is that this gives other programs in the U.P. a big boost. This year, the state championships will have a record 96 teams — FTC has really grown in Michigan.”

She said there is to be another state-qualifying tournament in Houghton Friday and Saturday, which will be an opportunity for other teams to earn a trip to the state championships.

Farwell said the students have created a total rebuild of the robot, but they also have improved in the planning and design process, plus they are using hexagonal axles.

“We are using higher quality parts that are less expensive,” said Farwell, who noted the team this season has begun to make many of its own parts with scrap metal, hacksaw and drill; wood; and 3-D printing.

The students, she said, are working to improve mechanisms on the robot and add a new mechanism to move a relic outside the robot field. Also, the programmers are building on their existing strong autonomous programming to accomplish more and score more points.

“The programmers and builders are communicating well so that what’s built is what’s programmed and what’s programmed is what’s built,” Farwell said. “The drive team will also be practicing because the more efficiently they can operate the robot, the better the robot does on the field during the driver-controlled period.”

The students’ preparation for the state tourney includes making new wooden supports for a scissor-style lift that moves and raises glyphs, and adding metal and 3-D printed braces to make the arms that grab the glyphs more stable and mounted better, she said.

“We are hoping that much of these tasks will be done in time for the Houghton tournament, but realistically, there will be at best improvements needed before heading to Battle Creek,” Farwell said.

She also noted the programming team is working to score more points during the autonomous, or pre-programmed, period. This skill includes moving a glyph from a 3-inch balancing stone and placing it in a randomly specified cryptobox.

Using Vuforia — software integrated with their Java package — these students aim to use the robot controller phone’s camera, which is mounted on the robot, to read a cryptograph.

“That will tell them in which cryptobox column to mount the glyph,” Farwell said.

However, taking part in robotics isn’t just about competing and working out technical issues.

Melody Doig, a SnowBots coach, and FIRST in Michigan coordinator for the western U.P., passed on these quotes from team members:

“It’s a fun way to learn the technology of the future,” said Quinn Aho, a member of the SnowBots Blue team.

Said Cecelia Ong, a member of the SnowBots Silver team: “Robotics isn’t just building a robot, it’s also about learning about other teams.”

Farwell passed along a quote from Robogator Owen Nettleton: “The Robogators were in first place going into the finals, which was awesome, but we (our alliance of three teams) lost in the very last round.”

This meant that the team didn’t qualify for the state event, he said. During the award ceremony, though, the squad members were finalists in various different categories, and ended up winning the Inspire Award, which Owen said is bigger than winning the qualifier.

“This got us to States!!!” he wrote.

Farwell acknowledged culture puts great prominence on winning, and winning is certainly more fun than losing.

“We emphasize being winners — in what they do and how they approach challenges — and having common/team goals over individual goals so we’re in harmony,” she noted. “Ultimately, the team can’t control many aspects of the robot matches such as who their alliance partner will be for any given match, and they can’t control how the judges will respond to their presentation, but they can control their preparation and community involvement, they can try their best and they can be helpful to others and good sports. If they focus on efforts and excellence on a regular basis, they are always winners.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.