Robotics teams from across the Midwest — including three teams from Lake Country and others from around the area — traveled to Milwaukee from March 23-25 to take each other on to see whose robots would prove the best in the region.
Over the course of the three-day tournament at the Panther Arena, 54 teams competed in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Wisconsin Regional. Arrowhead, Pewaukee and Kettle Moraine high schools all had teams at the event.
The winner was Marquette. That team, as well as teams from Catholic Memorial, Mukwonago BEARS and Charger Robotics of Sussex Hamilton, advanced to the FIRST Championships, held in St. Louis, Detroit or Houston.
FIRST Robotics first ran 90 qualifying rounds to rank the 54 robots. At the end of those rounds, the top eight teams could select two teams each to form eight alliances to enter the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, all a best-of-three format.
Waukesha CORE, made up of Waukesha South and Waukesha West students, finished first in the qualifying rounds, while Arrowhead Cyberhawks finished fifth. The Cyberhawks also earned the FIRST Industrial Safety Award. Pewaukee's Paradigm Shift reached the quarterfinals as well.
Teams score points by having their robot shoot balls into a funnel called the boiler, picking up gears and placing them on a spindle to activate an airship, and/or then using a rope to get the robot attached to the airship. The robot has to be programmed to operate autonomously for 15 seconds, and then a driver operates it for the next two minutes. It was part of the larger theme of the event, "Steamworks."
Kettle Moraine student Dylan Thompson, one of his team's robot drivers and the vice president of Laser Robotics, described what it's like to operate the vehicle, which involves using attached cameras to see where it's going and an Xbox game controller to maneuver it. He also works with a manipulator driver, along with team president and coach Zach Weske, to coordinate where the vehicle needs to go.
KM mentor Alan Buchanan said the operators have to make the most of the two minutes they're given. "They have to make the best use of every second it. They can't be sitting there wondering what to do," Buchanan said.
Weske added, "I'll be watching the clock, I'll be working with the other two teams in our alliance because we compete (with) two teams, (and) each team — each alliance — has three teams, so we'll be paired up with two others against three (teams, in one alliance) on the other end of the field. So I need to be working with the two others (on the alliance), and I've got to be evaluating the whole thing and telling them anything that they need to know."
Arrowhead's Cyberhawks, Pewaukee's Paradigm Shift, and Kettle Moriane's Laser Robotics work out their robots' bugs during practice rounds at Milwaukee's Panther Arena during FIRST Robotics regional competition on March 23.
More than robots
While building and programming robots is a big part of robotics, it's not all there is. Teams also have to handle a multitude of other tasis. For example, the Arrowhead High School Cyberhawks team has departments to handle business, design, mechanics, programming, multimedia/communications, safety and outreach.
Kettle Moraine coach Tara Ahrendt sees the benefits of a robotics program for everyone, not just those who want to pursue engineering.
"Even the kids that aren't going to go to engineering, they can still benefit from the experience of being on the FIRST team," Ahrendt said. "If you're going for communications, business, art, social media ... it has all aspects of that. You think of a robotics team as building and programming a robot, but it's so much more. ... So you could get anyone that could come and be on a FIRST team and have something to be a part of."
And the robotics campaign is broken up into separate seasons throughout the school year.
"You got your preseason, which is from September to the first week of January," explained Cyberhawks coach Scott Brookes, "which is all of your business functions, education and training that's needed. You got your build season, in which you have six weeks to build your robot. Then you have your competition season, which is seven weeks after the build season is over. Then it ends with the World Championships in St. Louis toward the end of April (and Houston this year). After competition season, you got your postseason, you got fundraising, you got outreach events, you got planning for the next school year.
"All that continues until you get into the preseason when the school year starts."
Sponsors also play a large role. For example, Arrowhead and Kettle Moraine are both sponsored by manufacturer Rockwell Automation and several others. Pewaukee is sponsored by General Electric and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, to name a couple.Sponsors help provide funding that allows the teams to travel and compete at events and build their robots. The teams also do fundraising events through school and outreach events, according to Brookes.
Adult mentors advise students on building the robots. At Kettle Moraine, Buchanan, a software engineer, and his wife volunteer to help out.
"(The program) recognizes that in the normal academic environment, some very valuable mental skills and work disciplines that in the normal academic environment aren't recognized," Buchanan said.
The Buchanans will be leaving the team, as they are moving out of state.
Pewaukee High School's Paradigm Shift coach Mike Spoerke said that the skills learned through robotics can also help in understanding automation's future role in manufacturing.
"As we move into the future, robotics and automation is going to be a huge part of manufacturing," Spoerke said. "It's important that people, not only kids, understand automation and robotics, and see how integral that is in day-to-day life. It's going to impact a lot of people in good ways and bad ways. An automated system does take away jobs, but then it provides really good jobs for people who want to program and design and maintain those."