Scientists and industry experts have been saying significant advances in automation are just around the corner for decades, but Generation Z appears to be the first group to fully embrace it.
“It’s the wave of the future,” said Aaron Backlund, a sophomore member of Jordan’s robotics team, Techno-Tech. “It’s wonderful when you’re looking for schools. Having robotics on your resume really shows a lot of credibility and looks good on college applications.”
The skills students develop as members of Techno-Tech extend beyond college aspirations. The critical thinking and problem solving they apply all winter, as they design and build a robot, can translate to valuable skills in almost any career field.
Senior team captain Anthony Quiñones said it’s like any job students will have in the future — they’re assigned a task, instructions and a deadline.
The team’s six-week season revolves around the regional FIRST Robotics Competition hosted by the University of Minnesota. At the start of the season, the organization details the “game,” or task, that teams will be challenged to complete at the competition. Teams have six weeks to design and build a robot that can complete that task as quickly and efficiently as possible. The robots must conform to basic specifications for dimensions and weight.
This year’s game required the robots to pick up and move three objects over to a rocket and place them on different obstacles, the highest of which reached about seven feet. The Jordan robotics team had to develop a robot that could pick up two rings, attach them to Velcro panels on the rocket, then pick up a ball and place it through a hole in the rocket. The game was designed to simulate automated rocket fueling. For extra points, teams could design their robot to climb a pedestal after the main task was complete.
The Jordan team decided early on to design the robot’s functionality around the core task and ignore the extra points.
“This year we decided to focus on scoring,” Quiñones said. “Last year we felt that we tried to focused on everything, so we decided to specialize with this year.”
After brainstorming and modeling several prototypes, the team ultimately settled on a robot with an A-frame base sitting on four Mecanum wheels, an aluminum arm with a vacuum suction-cup head, all programmed using Java commands and subsystems. Construction of the complex robot allowed team members to specialize in different parts of the build, including welding and fabrication, electronics, wiring, pneumatic, computer-aided design and programming.
Bringing all these disciplines together, the students built Dart — a 4-foot tall four-wheeled robot with a 3-foot reach, weighing in at 124.9 pounds. One of the biggest challenges in building the robot was adhering to the competition’s weight limit of 125 pounds. Dart’s initial build was far over the limit and all hands were brought on deck to lighten the metal frame and remove bulk.
“We put in all kinds of holes, we cut slices out of the frame, basically we cheese-holed this thing,” Quiñones said.
Dart’s weight issues were the result of the team over-correcting the fatal flaw of their previous robot.
“Last year’s robot was very flimsy and stuff was breaking a lot, so we wanted to not have that happen, so we made it a little beefier and maybe went too far,” said Jacob Higdem, who was responsible for welding and fabrication.
After putting Dart on a diet, the team didn’t run into any serious problems before competition on March 28 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Dart was put to the test in eight 2.5-minute matches. For each match, the Jordan team was paired up with two other teams and competed against another group of three.
“We get about 20 minutes to strategize with them and figure out what you want to do with the game,” Quiñones said.
Jordan’s robotics team won four of their eight matches. FIRST Robotics doesn’t have a class system, so the Jordan team competed against a wide range of skill levels, expertise and funding. International competitors from China and Turkey were also at the event.
At the end of the day, Quiñones, the team’s only upperclassman, was proud they finished with a better record than last year. He said while the rest of the team is young, their talent is promising.
And while Dart’s professional career may be over, the team is hoping to retire the robot rather than disassemble it.
“We’re overall very happy with this robot so we’d like to keep it together for demonstrations purposes,” Backlund said.
The team spent $4,000 on parts for Dart in addition to the competition’s $5,000 entree fee and base parts kit. Backlund said many of the electronics and motors have been reused in the past and will likely be stripped from Dart and be used on next year’s robot.
They will also remove new, expensive components purchased for Dart, such as the front-end camera, and salvage them for future use. That said, they may replace the parts with simpler, cheaper, non-competition-certified components to keep the robot intact and active.
Regardless of what becomes of Dart, the community will have a chance to see the robot in action at the Scott County Fair in July, where the local robotics community hosts a demonstration. To learn more about Techno-Tech, visit www.technotechrobotics.com/technotech.