Newer robotic teams adjust to competition

High school teams from throughout Michigan compete Friday during the opening day of the FIRST Robotics District Competition at St. Joseph High School. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

High school teams from throughout Michigan compete Friday during the opening day of the FIRST Robotics District Competition at St. Joseph High School. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — The competition season began for several robotics teams Friday.

Inside the cavernous St. Joseph High School Field House, 41 teams competed in a stronghold­-themed challenge with a robot they built in just six weeks. The FIRST robotics competition in St. Joseph ends today.

Among the newer teams is the Gearheads of River Valley High School. Member are trying to build on what they accomplished last year, when it took home Rookie of the Year honors at the St. Joseph invitational.

Michigan had the largest increase in robotics teams in 2016, with nearly 70 new teams signing up this year for a total of 411 teams in the state. Teams with three years or less in experience are considered rookies.

In addition to two days worth of matches, students worked on their robots in the pits.

River Valley junior Nathan Shriver spent time between matches making adjustments Friday.

“Our robot has changed from last year,” he said. “Instead of wheels, we have tank treads so we can ride over stuff a lot easier. Last year they didn’t require bumpers, so we had to make those ourselves a few days ago. It’s been pretty hectic.”

Gearheads mentor Mike Jones said there were some things they learned since last year, especially getting through the field elements.

“We didn’t get to try anything out really this year, practice-wise,” Jones said. “We had some communication issues on our first match. With only one person driving, I feel we need more eyes on the field.”

Benton Harbor junior Robbie Overton is team captain and lead programmer for The Tech Tigers and was with his team Friday as their bot took the course.

They named their robot “WALL-E.”

“We were trying to make it as simple as possible this year,” Overton said about the bot’s design. “We didn’t go for anything too complicated because we are a small team with not much funding.”

The seven-member Benton Harbor team had three mentors helping this year. The hardest part, Overton said, was the programming.

However, Overton said the team was given some help in that regard.

“I’m not experienced as a programmer and neither are our mentors,” Overton said. “So, we had to work with other teams to throw things together to try and get it in working shape for the competition.”

Shannon Harris, who entered his second year as a Tech Tiger mentor, said time proved to be a detractor for the team.

During the six-week work period, Harris said the team spent Monday through Saturday – taking Fridays off due to basketball – working on the bot after school.

Nick Molesworth, a freshman at Saugatuck High School, said it was interesting to see how other teams put their bots together.

Saugatuck’s robotics team was mentored by the St. Joseph High School Average Joes this year.

It was the school’s second year participating in the St. Joseph competition, but the majority of those who participated this year were new. Half of the team was unable to attend, but Molesworth said they felt it was important to still compete.

“We’ve added on as much as we could during the six weeks we had,” said Molesworth, a team fabricator. For their first match Friday, Molesworth said, “opening the door by ourselves proved to be difficult. We had to rely on our alliance” with other teams.

After Saturday’s matches, finalists will travel to the state competition in Grand Rapids to compete April 14­-16.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 12, 2016)

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