Local robotics teams advance

ESCANABA – Delta County students will soon be representing the Upper Peninsula on the world stage as both the Escanaba and Gladstone FIRST Robotics teams make their way to the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, Mo. next week.

“I thought there was a slim chance we were going there, but now, since we’re going there, it just makes it that much better,” said Jared Hunter, lead scout for the Gladstone Brave Bots.

Starting on Wednesday and running through Saturday, the Brave Bots and the Escanaba Robomos will represent Delta County on the world stage at the Edward Jones Arena. The teams will pit their robots against 400 other robots from 25 different countries in a game called Aerial Assist, which requires each robot team to join forces with two other teams by forming three-robot alliances. Each alliance then competes against another alliance to put a ball through a goal suspended above the playing floor.

During past competitions, the Robomos and the Brave Bots joined with each other and other Upper Peninsula teams in competitions – a partnership that led the teams to a first place title in a district competition in Traverse City on March 22 and to advance to the state competition held April 10 through 12 in Ypsilanti.

Despite neither team advancing to the finals in Ypsilanti, both teams amassed enough points to rank in the state’s top 32 teams and advance to the world competition.

“They take the regular season score and they add to that whatever you get at states (in the qualifying rounds) multiplied by three to get a running total of all your points through the regular season,” explained Brave Bots Coach Tim Barron. “Esky, us, and Houghton all had enough points to be in the top 32 in the state.”

While 32 teams advancing to the world competition may seem like a lot, every robotics team member will tell you that Michigan is the most difficult state to compete in, due largely to the fact the state has the highest number of engineers per capita. The students are the ones building and operating the robot, but the high number of available engineers means the 277 Michigan teams are likely to have engineers for team mentors.

“Almost every team you can think of has engineers helping on it, if not multiple ones, and then you get downstate and you’ve got Chrysler and GM and Ford mentors there that just make super robots,” said Christian Tackman, a drive team operator for the Brave Bots. “We’ve had to go up against them, but we worked with the other two teammates on our alliance to compete with them – you know, kind of use teamwork to level the playing field.”

Usually by the time the teams reach a competition there is little need for the mentor’s engineering expertise – unless something breaks down – but up until that point these mentors provide guidance to the students.

“We’re helping them in a couple different fields. One of them is a hands on building machine components and the other is more of an electrical based programming,” said Jake Denkins, automation engineer at Engineered Machined Products and mentor for the Escanaba Robomos.

How the engineers assist depends on where the teams need guidance, but the skills learned are not lost once the FIRST Robotics season ends.

“In the end that turns around and maybe someday these students will come back to work for them,” said Robomos Coach Marie Young.

Because the world competition includes students from around the world and their robots, students are preparing for both the benefits and the challenges of competing and forming alliances across cultures.

“It’ll be a great experience because you get to see what other teams from other countries do with robots for (ideas for) other years,” said Nick Valiquette, sophomore and drive team coach for the Robomos, who can participate in FIRST Robotics for another two years.

One challenge for both teams is the language barrier, which could cause difficulties for teams as they try to form and work with alliances that include teams from other countries.

“I kind of thought about that, but most of the other countries teach English in their schools,” said Valiquette, adding that exchange students in Escanaba came to the school with a good understanding of the English language.

Despite the concerns, students are viewing the chance to mingle and work with teams from other countries as an opportunity.

“The biggest thing for me is going to be the culture mix I’m going to be introduced to. Like, the amount of culture and diversity that’s going to be at this event just kind of blows my mind,” said Tackman.

As for the competition itself, the students are proud just to qualify for the world competition, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t preparing to bring Michigan and the U.P. to the forefront.

“From what I’ve heard from people that have been in the FIRST program a lot longer, is that Michigan is the hardest in the United States. I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage,” said Hunter. “We’ve seen some really, really tough teams and I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage.”