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Robotics League competes at Mall of America

February 18, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Inside the impact-resistant polycarbonate enclosed arena, two robotic vehicles, “Humdinger 2” and “Chucker” engage in combat.

The crowd in attendance cheers and shouts words of encouragement.

This was the final three-minute match for the championship at the Midwest Robotics League competition.

The match was taking place February 9, in the Sears Court at the Mall of America.

Two students from competing teams expertly operate their radio remote-controllers, in an effort to gain tactical advantage over the other’s robot or “bot.”

They are trying to win the match on points – or better yet, immobilize the other’s bot altogether.

The match itself is intense and fast-paced.

These 15 pound motorized bots chase, circle and repeatedly hammer into each other at high speeds – many times sending showers of white sparks into the air.

All of a sudden, the roof of the arena caved in . . . literally.

One of the nine ceiling panels covering the enclosure was the recipient of a direct hit caused by a ‘vertically flying’ Humdinger 2 . . . courtesy of a powerful impact collision delivered by Chucker.

The crowd is cheering, clapping, and shaking their heads in amazement.

The match is momentarily suspended while the panel is replaced.

After another minute of battling, the judges declare Humdinger 2 the winner, as the brave and valiant Chucker stops operating because of a broken drive belt.

These aluminum-framed and titanium-hulled remote-controlled vehicles, are designed, built and operated by the students whose schools participate in the Midwest Robotics League.

My son, Andrew, is a member of the St. Cloud Technical College’s robotics team, which is one of the schools taking part in the Midwest Robotics League competition.

Deb Holmes, director of the Midwest Robotics League, answered some questions for today’s column.

Ollig: When did the Midwest Robotics League (MRL) form and what was the reason for starting it?

Deb Holmes: The MRL was formed in 2004.  It was formed to give students a hands-on program that would be fun, and allow them to see the opportunities available in the manufacturing industry.   They get so excited about building their bot and competing, they hardly know they’re learning.

Ollig: I attended the competition Feb. 9, at the Mall of America. How many events do you hold each year?

Deb Holmes: We hold a monthly competition for the 15 pound robots, as seen at the Mall, and at least one competition a year for the 120 pound robots.

Ollig: The Mall of America competition was well attended by fans and the students competing. When and where is the next local area competition?

Deb Holmes: The next competition is March 29 at Dedicated Logistics in New Hope. The April competition will be combined with a pro event and will include bots from across the nation.  It will be April 26 and 27 at the Mall of America again, but this time in the Rotunda, and May 10 will be at Dedicated Logistics in New Hope again.  The competitions at Dedicated also include the 120 pound bots.   Check out our website for directions, times, and more details at http://www.kickbot.org.

Ollig: Does the MRL compete nationally?

Deb Holmes: In the past, MRL has helped with the national competition. This year we are holding our own national competition in April. Two of the bots you saw at the MOA took second and third at nationals last year.

Ollig: Could you tell us a little about “The Bots IQ” curriculum for middle schools, high schools and college academic programs?

Deb Holmes: The curriculum was developed by a teacher in Massachusetts.  It can be used as curriculum for teams that build a bot as part of their school day, or just used for reference for teams that build a bot  as an after-school extra-curricular activity.

Ollig: What does a school need to start a robotics team? Who should they contact?

Deb Holmes: They should contact me at deb@midwestroboticsleague.org or call me at (612) 804-3314.  The best way to start is to go to a Teacher’s Training that we offer.  Then we can help you get sponsorship and work with you to get a robot built.  I’d be happy to come out to your school and talk to students, teachers, etc.”

Ollig: What skills do students improve upon or obtain by building these robots?

Deb Holmes: There’s such a wide range, but generally, their math, science, engineering and technology skills are put to the test.  Often the students also learn teamwork, real-life lessons, how to work within a budget (time, money, knowledge and weight), marketing skills, driving skills, etc.

Ollig: If any businesses would like to become sponsors for the Midwest Robotics League, who should they contact?

Deb Holmes: We’d love to have businesses sponsor teams.  Please call me at 612-804-3314 or e-mail me at deb@midwestroboticsleague.org. 

Ollig: “Thanks, Deb, very much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Deb Holmes: It was a pleasure. . .  I really believe we have some brilliant, hard working kids in our program.  I’m proud to say that the future of America is looking up.

The Midwest Robotics League web site is located at http://www.kickbot.org.

To see the video of the MRL championship match held at the Mall of America, go to YouTube and search for “Humdinger 2 vs. Chucker Championship.”