CEDAR FALLS — The teams started in January, designing and programming their robots.
Over the following weeks, the high school students practiced and made adjustments to the creations, which can weigh up to 150 pounds. That continued even after arriving at the University of Northern Iowa for this weekend’s FIRST Robotics Competition regional, the only one in the state.
By the time teams lined up in the tunnel leading out to the McLeod Center court, there wasn’t much more to do but wait.
Members of Unity4Tech Team 5837, the Waterloo East High School-based team, did some last-minute strategizing Friday with an alliance partner, Fiercely Uknighted Nation Team 6630, from La Porte City’s Union High School as they prepared for their first 2-1/2-minute match of the competition. The other alliance partner was a team from Saydel High School in Des Moines.
“Everyone knows before the match what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it,” said East junior Nicholas Heinz, Unity4Tech’s co-captain. Randomly assigned to three-team alliances during the initial qualification matches, he noted they typically have 10 to 20 minutes to work out a strategy before getting in line.
This year’s competition is called “Power Up” and has a video game theme. Teams compete on a 27-foot by 54-foot playing field. Members operating the robots from outside of the field gather “power cubes” and place them on control switches or their end of a giant scale at the center, which are some of the ways to score points.
FIRST — or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is the international organization that created the robotic program and competition.
Heinz admitted his team hadn’t completed everything they wanted to on their robot, but looked on the positive side. “We’re in a running state. Everything’s operating,” he said.
Iowa’s regional drew 58 teams from eight states plus three more from Turkey and Brazil, totaling more than 2,000 students and mentors. That included five Cedar Valley teams and another 22 from across Iowa. Other states represented included Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Teams arrived Wednesday and the competition wrapped up Saturday. Each team competed nine to 10 times over two days.
During the first matches Friday, teams were still gauging their potential and that of the teams around them.
Union High School senior Dan Johanningmeier said their goal was to get the most cubes on the scale. How was he feeling right before taking the field?
“A little nervous, but it’s the first qualifying match,” he said. Afterward, they can figure out “what’s not working with our strategy” and what to change.
The alliance did not win that first match. Unity4Tech member Austin Wildeboer, an East freshman, said it helped the team confirm its capabilities and that work is needed on the mechanism to pick up cubes.
The component “isn’t necessarily working,” he said. “It’s not doing what it’s told.”
A slow start is typical for the team. “We usually lose our first match, but we usually come back,” said Taylor Roquet, an East senior and team co-captain.
Back in the pit area at the adjacent UNI-Dome, the Swartdogs Team 525 from Cedar Falls High School was preparing for its first match.
Lucas Shaw, a sophomore and one of the team’s drivers, said “sometimes it can be high anxiety” as a match approaches. “Normally, for qualification matches we feel better,” he added.
There is still pressure to do well in those initial matches. Teams choose alliances for the playoffs, starting with the top-scorers in the qualification rounds. The Swartdogs have been in that position at past regionals, including earlier this month.
The team competed in the Great Northern Regional in Grand Forks, N.D., and was one of the top-scoring teams. The alliance the Swartdogs chose came in second place, making it a “wild card” team to compete at the FIRST World Championship in Detroit April 25-28. Top-scoring teams at the Iowa Regional and those given other awards by the judges will also advance to the championship.
With several international teams at the event, there was also a bit of a cultural exchange in the pit area. Members of Adroit Androids Team 6025 from Istanbul, Turkey, handed out bags containing information about their team and treats from their country — Turkish coffee and Turkish Delights. The team is from Bahcesehir Anatolian High School.
“I’m so excited for this,” said Adroit Androids member Deniz Ozbek. “I’m so excited for meeting new teams.”
Berker Gonul, a team mentor, expressed confidence as they headed to their first match. “We think we have a shot in all areas,” he said. The team, in its third year, has gone to the world championship for the past two years.
“So, why not again?” he asked.