Robotic teams gear up

ESCANABA – Escanaba is gearing up for some heavy metal. The For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition is coming to Escanaba next month.

On March 14-15, Escanaba Area Public High School will host a FIRST Robotics District Event. Currently 35 robotics teams from high schools around the U.P. and state are registered to participate.

The competition will be free and open to the public. The opening ceremony for the event will take place March 14 at 10:30 a.m. with matches beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m.

The event continues March 15 from 9 a.m. into the early evening. All matches take place in the Escanaba High School gymnasium.

“It’s an amazing feat because we’ve never had it in the U.P. ever before,” said Marie Young, Escanaba science teacher and team leader of the Robomos, Escanaba’s robotics team. “This is the organization’s (FIRST’s) 21st year and this is our fourth year, and I would say in the U.P. there’s a few teams that are older than us, but many of the teams are even younger or just starting out this year. It’s a growing sport of the mind.”

Other local schools signed up to participate at the Escanaba event are Gladstone, Bark River-Harris, Big Bay de Noc, and Manistique.

Each school’s robotics team must compete at two district events in order to qualify at the state level, but with Escanaba hosting an event this year many U.P. teams will only need to travel downstate once for their second required competition.

“We’ve always had to pack up our stuff and head out of town for three or four days so this is really nice,” said Young. “It’s an opportunity for U.P. teams to come and compete close to home. I hope we have a lot of spectators who come and see what it’s all about too. I think they’ll be impressed.”

An event like this also brings a lot of business into the community, as it draws a large number of participants and their families to the area.

“We’ll have anywhere between 35 to 40 teams here,” she said. “Every team has anywhere between 10 and 40 members and that’s only students. Along with the student members….are anywhere between three to 20 mentors, too.”

Though the competition itself will last for two days, teams arrive the day prior to the event to set up their own personal robot pit area.

Each team must then pass inspection to ensure their robot is in compliance with FIRST rules and regulations.

“It’s very complex and not uncommon for a team not to pass inspection and then to be busy rebuilding their robot in the pits in a hurry to comply so they can actually compete,” said Young.

The first day and a half of the event focuses on qualification rounds where three robotics teams compete in an alliance against another three-team alliance.

Wins and losses from the qualification rounds are factored together to help rank teams.

Once the qualification rounds are finished, only 24 teams will advance to the elimination rounds where the top eight ranked teams are seeded and get to choose two other alliance partners to join them. This time, however, the alliances are set for the remainder of their competition unlike the qualification matches. Strategy is crucial at this point, said Young.

“We’ll have six of our members doing nothing but watching the competitions and rating every single robot every time they get on the floor,” she said. “In the end, if we were up in that top eight and we have to pick a team, we’re not going to go by the order but we’re going to look at their stats. We’re going to have scouted them and find out who actually fits in with our team best as an alliance partner.”

Once a team competes in two district events, rankings determine the top teams across the state. Only 60 teams in Michigan move to the state competition.

As with every year, the robots are required to participate in a specific game as part of the competition. This year’s game is called Aerial Assist.

“The past couple years we’ve featured basketball games where you just take foam basketballs and you have to shoot hoops, or balancing on teeter totters and throwing frisbees,” said Robomos team member Sam LaMarche. “This year we have to take yoga balls and be able to throw them into goals. You get extra points for passing the ball to others, so they’ve incorporated team work.”

In the meantime, the Robomos are putting the finishing touches on their robot as this Tuesday marks the final day of their six-week build period.

After this, they will not be able to work on it until the week prior to the competition when they are granted a six-hour period to do so.

Young noted Escanaba’s Engineered Machined Products (EMP) is a major sponsor of the team and has been a huge help to team members and in providing hands-on experience to students.

“This is the kind of experience you can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “You’re never going to get it in a classroom…so when they work with professionals like this and they can go into a real professional place and work hands-on there with a professional, it’s amazing.”

Young said Escanaba would not be able to host this event without the many volunteers who have agreed to help out during the competition. However, additional volunteers are still needed.

For more information on how to get involved, visit the Robomos Team website, contact Young at (906) 280-3341 or via email at

Volunteer coordinator Lisa Valiquette can also be reached at