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Pillagers will focus on teamwork for robotics competition

Seniors Elvira Chuibekova and Andrew Gausman work on a prototype for the Plaid Pillagers robot. The team worked to finalize their design this week so they have time to get the robot built before the deadline on Tuesday, Feb. 18.

MORRIS, Minn. -  After seven years, the students in Morris Area’s FIRST Robotics team, the Plaid Pillagers, will have to come up with some new tricks to be successful in this year’s competition, which emphasizes team cooperation over individual glory.

The robotics season began on Saturday, Jan. 4 when 2,700 teams from around the world learned the details of this year's challenge, Aerial Assist, and received their kit of materials which includes motors, batteries, a control system, a PC, and a mix of components.

In Aerial Assist, two alliances of three teams each compete by trying to score as many goals with a two foot exercise ball as possible during a two-minute and 30-second match. Teams can also score by throwing and catching a ball over a truss suspended over the middle of the floor.

The game is “heavily based on assistance and cooperation,” said Jade Vipond, electrical team leader.

Additional points are awarded to robots who work together to score goals.

“I’m excited to see how [other teams] took the challenge and made it their own,” Vipond added.

“It’s not like previous years where every robot can do it’s own thing – this year everyone has to work together and all the robots have to be tailored to fit individual roles like that,” said Lenny Scott, programming team leader.

To take on this different challenge, the team is working to develop a robot that will be able to compete successfully in all aspects of the game – pick up the ball, throw the ball, and catch the ball.

“We want to try and do as much as we can,” said Captain Lily Ehrdal.

“We’ve seen that a lot of teams have been able to successfully do all these things, so I think we’re going to have a lot of robots that fundamentally can do the same things,” said Scott. “We’re going to have to figure out how to do those things more quickly, more efficiently, more reliably.”

Because the game piece – an exercise ball – is quite different from the basketballs and frisbees that the team has worked with in the past, previous shooting mechanism designs aren’t powerful enough to work effectively, said Ehrdal.

Since the team got the details of the challenge at the beginning of January, participants have been working on different prototypes for how the robot might work. This week, the team will sit down to finalize the design so they can start building the robot.

The team has until midnight on Tuesday, Feb. 18 to work on the robot. After “Stop Build Day,” robots must be “bagged and tagged” until teams attend their first 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. The program is designed to inspire young people to pursue interests in science and engineering.

This year, the Plaid Pillagers are planning to attend two regional competitions – the first in Duluth on March 6 – 8 and the second in the Twin Cities on March 27 – 29, which will determine their eligibility for a state or national competition.

During a regional competition, alliances are randomly assigned during qualification rounds. Ahead of the final rounds, the top eight teams from the qualifying rounds are named alliance captains and get to choose their two partners for the finals through a tournament bracket.

As FIRST has become more popular in the state, the regional competitions have gotten bigger and more competitive – there are more robotics teams in Minnesota than varsity boys’ hockey teams – but the Plaid Pillagers are still recognizable in their signature blue kilts.

To learn more about the Plaid Pillagers visit their website,, or their Facebook page,