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Plaid Pillagers gear up for fifth year of robotics competition

James Aaronson (left) and Thomas McPhee (center) talk with advisor Eric Buchanan (right) about changes to the team's robot. Morris' Plaid Pillagers have six weeks to turn a kit of parts into a competition-ready robot.2 / 3
Tayvin Viratyosin (left) and Lucas Weiland (right) show off a robot at the Plaid Pillagers community dinner on Friday, Jan. 13 at the Morris Senior Center.3 / 3

MORRIS, Minn. - If four years of competition has taught the members of Morris' FIRST Robotics team one lesson, it's that simple is better.

Now three weeks into their fifth season, the Plaid Pillagers hope to build on their success - and mistakes - from previous seasons by attending two regional competitions and, perhaps, making it to the state robotics competition.

FIRST - which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur and advocate for science and technology, who might be best known to the general public as the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter.

The robotics season began on Saturday, Jan. 7 when teams around the world learned the details of this year's challenge and received their kit of materials. Over the next six weeks, the team will design, build, test and re-test the robot before it is sealed up in preparation for their first regional competition in Duluth in March.

This year's game is called "Rebound Rumble" - "a simplified and modified version of basketball," said Team Captain Kevin Viratyosin - that involves shooting hoops and balancing robots. During each match, alliances of three robots compete against one another to toss as many basketballs as they can into four hoops during a 2 minute and 15 second match. At the end of each match, the robots will attempt to balance on bridges in the middle of the 27 by 54 foot field. Each basket and each balanced robot earns the alliance points.

In the past, the Plaid Pillagers have tried to build robots that would excel during all phases of the game. This year, they've decided to keep things simple, focusing on the balance portion of the game rather than trying to shoot hoops.

"In past years, there have always been a lot of different things you can do, and we've always tried to do all of them and then end up not doing any of them," said Mickey Cotter, programming team leader. "A big idea [this year] was to keep it simple. When we get these ideas [to do more], just to stick with one specific thing that we can do really well."

Unlike other high school competitions, FIRST regional competitions aren't selected by location. Teams are able to sign up and attend any regional they choose, provided they can finance their trip.

This year, the Plaid Pillagers will be participating in a second regional competition at the end of March, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Although going to a second regional costs money - about $5,000 for registration and travel - it also gives the team the opportunity to make improvements to the robot after one competition and, hopefully, perform better the second time.

"One of the things you learn being in this is that the more regionals you attend, more than likely, the better you're going to do," said Business Team Leader Thomas McPhee. "No matter how good you are, there are just going to be things that you will not be able to deal with until you are at a regional and competing with the robot."

"Your odds of doing better are better," said Elizabeth Schneider, construction team leader.

This is also the first year that FIRST has been recognized by the Minnesota State High School League as an officially-sanctioned extracurricular activity.

According to MSHSL, Minnesota has 131 teams, the fourth highest number in the country. The regional competition at Williams and Mariucci Arenas is the largest regional event in the country and regularly hosts more than 120 teams. The partnership also includes a FIRST State Tournament in May, which Minnesota teams can qualify for through the regional events.

Part of the challenge of the FIRST competition is to raise the money needed to travel to competitions and buy extra parts and pieces to build the best robot possible. Teams in more urban areas often have many corporate sponsors to help cover costs.

The Plaid Pillagers have only two major corporate sponsors - Superior Industries and Medtronic - and consequently rely on smaller donations and fundraisers to make ends meet.

"There are teams that are worse off than us, teams that are in about the same place, but the vast majority of teams are probably doing better than us. A lot of them come from the [Twin] Cities and they're able to get a lot of corporate sponsorship from big companies," said McPhee.

"We're still a homemade team," said Schneider. "I think we have the best character. When we come around [at competition] everyone's like 'You're the plaid guys! We remember you!' They recognize us as being helpful."

Last year, the team was awarded for their good work with the FIRST Robotics Gracious Professionalism Award, which recognizes a team that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others and respects individuals and the community.

"The reason it is an important award is that [gracious professionalism] is one of the models of FIRST. The idea is that you're competing against the other teams, but you help them as much as you can," said Eric Buchanan, the Plaid Pillagers adult advisor.

Team leaders are also proud of the fact that they have improved every year they have competed. In their first season, the team came in a disappointing 56 out of 60 at their first regional competition. Each year they've scored more points or received more awards or been more competitive than the year before.

"More than anything, just having a robot that does really, really well and behaves consistently is the most important thing," said McPhee.

"Aside from competition, right now we have people who have never done robotics before," said Schneider. "They're learning about electrical wiring, construction, mechanics. If we all get better and build as a team more, that's great too."

How can you support the Plaid Pillagers?

Buy a lighbulb. Two seasons ago, FIRST got a grant from Google to produce LED lightbulbs that teams can buy and sell as a fundraiser.

"At the time, they were the best lightbulb on the market," said Programming Team Leader Mickey Cotter. "They have since come out with a second generation which is now the best lightbulb on the market."

The lightbulbs last 25,000 hours and only draw 13.5 watts, saving money on electricity. Lighbulbs are available from any team member and will be on sale at locations throughout the community. First generation lightbulbs are $15 and second genertion lightbulbs are $26.

Attend an upcoming fundraiser. The Plaid Pillagers will be working at Pizza Ranch from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 6. All tips and part of the profit from the evening will go to the team.

Serve as a mentor. "We also need and are always looking for adult mentors," said Business Team Leader Thomas McPhee. Mentors don't need to have engineering, construction or business experience - just a willingness to supervise or hang out with the team while they work on building the robot.

You can find more about the Plaid Pillagers at their website,, or e-mail