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A High-Tech Learning Experience

By Kim Ukura

Sun Tribune

"You know, we were the only robot built like an actual fortress," senior John Schneider remarked, gesturing towards the gutted and battle-worn robot sitting in the middle of the room. "I mean, it looks like an actual tank," he finished, to a round of laughter and acknowledgement from the rest of the team.

Although the Morris FIRST Robotics Team, the PLAID Pillagers, finished a disappointing 56 out of 60 at Milwaukee Regional Competition last month, team members have already begun their plans to improve next year. What's in store? Public robot demonstrations, year-round fundraising, and a more well-organized building process for their next robot.

And with only four of their 27 team members graduating, the team is optimistic about its chances to improve next year and encouraged by the lessons learned at its first visit to the competition.

"We learned more in those 10 hours than we did in the entire build season," Finzel reflected. "It was a trial by fire."

"You need to learn quickly, or not at all," senior Ben Cole said.

Twenty five students attended the regional competition in Milwaukee on March 13-15. They arrived in Milwaukee at about 3 a.m. on Thursday morning; and by 7:45 a.m. Finzel, Bergerson, and coach Eric Buchanan were already at the arena to begin uncrating the robot.

"We spent all of Thursday doing major and minor repairs," Finzel said.

Throughout the day, teams were also responsible for getting their robot checked in and approved as meeting both size and weight requirements. Because of their long day of repairs, the team did not get to test drive the robot or take it to get inspected until almost 7 p.m.

After just barely making the size dimensions - "we were scraping the sides of the box," Cole recalled - the team got their biggest surprise yet.

The robot was almost 20 pounds too heavy.

"We were shocked," Lemke said. "We only had an hour left that night, and an hour and a half the next morning, to get the robot to weight."

To solve the problem, the team took to the robot with a saw, removing the back panel, sections of the sides, and their few ornamental decorations. After a number of miscues and trips back to the scale, the team managed to get the robot down to exactly 120 pounds just a few minutes before their first round.

Unfortunately, the team ran out of time to make it to their first match, missing the lineup by only 10 seconds, Finzel said.

With minimal adjustments, the team was able to compete in their second, and arguably most successful round of the tournament.

"We got through three laps and knocked down a ball, which were our goals," Finzel said. "In the last 10 seconds our belt slipped off, but I thought, 'If the belts stay on this long each round, we'll be golden."

Unfortunately, belt problems plagued the team for the rest of the competition - during the 2 minute, 15 second rounds, the robot was only able to stay running between 10 seconds to a minute before the belt slid off, leaving the robot standing still on the track.

"With the extra weight removed, we compromised the structural integrity of the robot," Cole explained. "When we would run into a wall the robot would bend, shift the wheels, and the belts would come loose."

The robot's final round provided another important lesson for the team - electronics placement matters

With just 10 seconds left in the race, the hinge on the robot's mechanical arm broke causing the falling arm to hit the robot's power switch. This mishap shut the robot off completely in the middle of the race. The robot's death blow caused a traffic jam on the track, tipping other robots over and getting others stuck together.

"It committed robot suicide," Jesse Bergerson laughed, reiterating the team's inside joke about their disappointing last-round finish.

Sally Finzel, one adult who joined the Pillagers on the trip, was amazed with the level of teamwork she saw from the team during rough parts of the competition.

"They were able to cut huge parts from the robot, and did it without compromising the functions," she said. "They were able to think on their feet very quickly, and it was amazing the way they worked together."

Although they did not place where they had hoped, the team has already begun to assess what changes they need to make before next years build season begins.

"[The rank] was pretty disappointing," Finzel said, "but not that unexpected."

"We just didn't have the experience to make our ideas work - we needed more mentors," Lemke concurred.

Additionally, the team hopes to be more organized, have time to build prototypes of their ideas, and work to be exact with measurements and design concepts.

When reflecting on the season at a year-end meeting, the team was also especially thankful to businesses in the community that contributed to their work - Superior Industries, the University of Minnesota Foundation, Radio Shack, Town and County Supply, and Fastenal.

The final major project for this year is to get the robot back up and running for a presentation to the school board on April 21.

On Wednesday, May 7, at 7 p.m. the public is invited to an open house in the MAHS gymnasium to see pictures from the competition and a demonstration of the robot.