CEDAR FALLS — The rockets will lift off in two minutes and 30 seconds as remotely operated robots collect samples from the surface of Planet Primus, which is actually the playing court on the floor of the University of Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center.
Large orange balls — the collected samples — are placed into the rocket and cargo ship by the robots, which also close multiple hatches to secure the load. And the robots’ operators strive to do it all better than the competing team alliance.
But even in the course of 2-1/2 minute matches at the Iowa Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, things can go wrong. Hilltoppers Team 1732 from Milwaukee experienced that in the very first match Friday morning. The team is made up of students from Divine Savior Holy Angels and Marquette University high schools.
After doing as much as possible of the other tasks, operators attempt to maneuver their robots onto one of three platforms before the match ends. Students had designed the robot to elevate its base to the highest platform level. Before it got there, though, it tipped over and was unable to recover.
“We were going up to level three to get the most points,” said Ernst Arnhold, a team mentor. The mechanism that raised the robot’s base is “a rack and pinion lift,” he explained. Although it functioned, the robot tipped over because “our sensor was in the wrong spot.”
At the team’s booth in the UNI-Dome, students were working furiously to address the flaw. Ryan Guinn, another mentor, said the solution to the sensor problem wasn’t difficult: “When we start the match, just make sure it’s on the right height.”
Getting it right is important as three-team alliances band together and face their competitors, working cooperatively to gain points through tasks completed by their robots. The Hilltoppers were one of 48 high school teams — including seven from northeast Iowa — at the regional meet, which continued Saturday. All together, more than 2,000 students participated from eight Midwestern states and California.
Top teams in the playoffs Saturday afternoon will advance to the FIRST Championship April 24-27 in Detroit. FIRST is an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The organization plans each year’s contest and oversees the championships.
Cedar Falls High School’s Swartdogs Team 525 is heading to the championship no matter how they do in the weekend competition. Two weeks ago at the Northern Lights Regional in Duluth they were on the winning alliance, enabling them to move on.
The team’s robot has an arm with three fingers at the end to pick up the hatch covers, which have a hole in the center.
“They go in and out to pick up the hatches,” said junior Lucas Shaw. The movable fingers can then release the covers once they are in place.
Another strength of their robot is the lift that allows operators to boost it up to the highest platform — without tipping over. “It’s 12 points for climbing onto the third level,” said Shaw.
The Coded Collective Team 6455 from Columbus Catholic High School in Waterloo focused solely on picking up hatch covers. Their robot’s arm is outfitted with Velcro that allows it to pick up the covers even when they fall to the ground. The covers also have Velcro around their edges.
Now in its third year of competition, the team kept the robot simpler than last year. “We can only do bottom level hatches,” said senior Eli Olmstead.
“We knew we had to be an overall team or be good at one thing,” said sophomore Ryan Picken. After their second match Friday, he noted, “we’re averaging six hatches” per match. “We want to keep it close to that number.”
D Cubed Team 904, based at a group of Grand Rapids, Mich., high schools, focused on loading balls into its alliance’s rocket and fitting covers over the hatches during an early match Friday.
“We’re filling in for whatever position is needed,” said junior Linda Jiao. “Because we can do all three levels of the rocket.”
Between matches, team members planned to work on their robot’s climbing arm. “It got bent up in the drive here,” said senior Aiden Baldwin. Repairs and revisions to the robot are a reality all teams deal with throughout a competition.
“There’s always things we need to work on,” said Jiao. “It’s always a work in progress.”