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Robotics teams gear up for competition

Silver Bay junior Al Robertsen checks out the wiring on the Mariner robot Monday at William Kelley High School. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)1 / 2
Students and mentors for Two Harbors Rock Solid robotics team work Tuesday to iron out problems they encountered at a scrimmage Sunday in Grand Rapids. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb2 / 2

Schools in Lake County were quiet this week with spring break in full swing, but on Monday and Tuesday sections of Two Harbors High School and William Kelley High School in Silver Bay were buzzing with activity.

Tuesday was the last day robotics teams could work to iron out issues with their mechanical creations before the robots had to be "bagged and tagged" for the dual regional competition March 3-4 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. More than 120 robotics teams and more than 2,000 people will converge on the DECC for a weekend of competitions where the teams' robots will form alliances and compete with other alliances in a game unveiled in the fall.

After last year's castle themed competition, both the Mariner Robotics team and the Rock Solid team in Two Harbors scrapped their entire design from last year and over the past six weeks have come up with new designs to address the problems presented by the challenge posed by the FIRST Robotics Competition.

WKS junior Andrew Evenson said his team's robot was one of the best last weekend during a scrimmage at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids for hitting the goal with the balls, topping out at better than 70 percent accuracy and they used a technology used for another common North Shore activity to solve the rope climbing task.

"I thought that we could have a wheel that could grab onto the rope and then spin up, almost like a fishing reel that could wind it in," he said.

The biggest challenge for the Silver Bay team this year was learning a new programming language, C++. The "word coding" language, according to Evenson, caused the team to go through a trial and error process to learn the ins and outs of the new language.

The Mariner team has also had problems with its battery draining too quickly. Junior Al Robertsen said they still weren't sure what the problem was on Monday afternoon, but it all adds up to a fun activity for him.

"Along the way you encounter all of these different difficulties and it's a giant puzzle and I like puzzles," Robertsen said. "Right now we're running into a lot of wiring issues and we aren't sure what they are. We have so many different motors, and we aren't sure what's causing the issue with the battery."

Down in Two Harbors, the team was also scrambling to get everything ready for the Tuesday deadline, making last minute adjustments and testing a few key systems. Sophomore Jake Wilmot was using SolidWorks, a computer-aided design software, to design a last minute part for the Rock Solid robot and programmer Navah Swoverland was working to tweak the code and make sure the robot was receiving the correct commands. Wilmot said the Two Harbors team had some time management problems in the beginning of the season but he was proud of the way his team "stepped up" over the past weeks to get the robot completed and competition-ready.

The FIRST Robotics Competition actually encourages cooperation between teams and even awards points for "professional graciousness." Both teams have tried to help each other out in the past and Swoverland said Silver Bay programmer Gunnar Frahm came down to help her and the other Rock Solid programmers troubleshoot the LabView language, which Frahm used last year.

While a lot of students in Two Harbors are focused on building and running their robot, others are concerned with reaching out to the public to build awareness of the program.

"There wouldn't be much point of having a robotics team if no one knew about it," Two Harbors media and marketing captain Jackson Leon said.

Leon has spearheaded the effort in Two Harbors, learning about media and marketing as well as building a new skill, photography. He realized last season, his first with the robotics team, he enjoyed taking pictures and even has a knack for it. In addition to shooting photos of students working and competing, Leon has even taken to shooting basketball photos at Two Harbors home games. His efforts, though, have a more serious effort, funding the team.

Funding robotics teams is a near universal challenge for participants and both teams have to work to secure funding for the $5,000 entry fee for the DECC competition and that doesn't include the money spent building and programming the robot. Each team has received funding from local businesses and organizations like Cooperative Light and Power in Two Harbors and the Arrowhead Manufacturers and Fabricators Association.

Despite the cost, both teams have a lot of fun and learn many practical, real life skills that are increasingly necessary for life after high school in today's world.

"This has definitely added to my school education, since there are things that I've learned here that I might not have learned about in class like cooperation and real world problem solving," Robertsen said. "We have a real problem and we need to solve it in the real world. It's nice to work on something real."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Silver Bay City Council and high school sports in Lake County. 

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