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Delano robotics team on a world stage
April 20, 2015

By Gabe Licht

DELANO, MN – A robot scurries across the floor, picking up and stacking totes. Behind the controls are two Delano High School students from the FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3026, also known as Orange Crush.

They have competed in Minneapolis and Duluth, where they were invited as a wild card team to compete at the FIRST Championships Wednesday, April 22, through Saturday, April 25, in St. Louis.

Their season began the first Saturday in January at the University of Minnesota. There, they watched a 3-minute video detailing the RECYCLErush challenge.

It entails working with two other teams and their robots to stack totes on their half of a 27-foot-by-54-foot competition space.

Once two totes are stacked, a bin can be placed on top for more points, and pool noodles – symbolizing litter – can be added to those bins, placed in the “landfill” area, or placed in the opponents’ non-landfill area for more points. Competing teams can also work together to stack yellow totes for an extra 20 points each.

“Every time, before each match, you have to go to them and ask, ‘What does your robot do?’” copilot Eric Mikkelsen said of the alliance teams.

“You have to work that out ahead of time and come up with a strategy of how you guys are going to cooperate and work together,” pilot Harrison Bolzer added. “Sometimes, you have to go to the opposite team you’re playing against because there is some cooperation you can do to score more points.”

After the qualifying rounds, teams are ranked by their average scores.

The top eight teams pick two teams each to join their alliance. Because they can pick other teams in the top eight to join their alliance, some teams outside the top eight can end up being an alliance captain.

Though Orange Crush was ranked 19th at the St. Paul competition, the sixth-place team picked them first to join their alliance.

“We got picked way ahead of our rank, which is good for us because the ranking only goes so far to show what your robot does,” Mikkelsen said.

With the new alliance, Orange Crush competed in the quarterfinals, but did not advance to the semifinals.

Before the competitions, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes.

“The first couple days, we sit around brainstorming, working on different ways to accomplish the task,” Mikkelsen said. “After that, we go into the prototyping stage, where we test our ideas. We build mockups to try to see if our ideas work.”

Team members admit the process doesn’t look pretty, but it is practical.

“It’s just stuff we throw together really quickly to test the concept first before we get too many hours invested into it,” Mikkelsen said.

In total, the team has six weeks to build a robot. Then, they must bag it and wait for competition.

They thought they would be done competing after the Duluth competition, but the judges liked what they saw and invited the team to the FIRST Championship. There, they will compete against about 600 teams from across the country as well as China, Israel, Argentina, Japan, and Australia.

Orange Crush was ranked in the middle of the pack before making about $1,200 in enhancements.

Regardless of how they do at the international level, the team members enjoy what they do.

“It’s a very hands-on experience,” Mikkelsen said. “You can’t really learn how to do any of it in school.”

Seth Thoelke is hoping to drive the robot next year. For now, he enjoys being a part of the construction team.

“The biggest part is being able to build it and make sure everything fits together,” he said.

“At the end of the day, after putting in all the time and effort, looking at it, and driving it around, all the work is worth it,” Bolzer added. “I’m in high school doing things that adults are doing for their jobs.”

He’s also met professionals in the technology industry, such as the CEO for Baxter Medical, through robotics.

“It’s great exposure to meet tons of engineers and leaders in the field,” Bolzer said.

Working with robots can also lead to a career.

Mikkelsen said his brother received an internship from Sil-Pro, who is a platinum sponsor of the team, and now has a full-time job there. Another past team member received a full-time job through sponsor company Calbrandt, while another still got a job at Northern Lights Laser, another team sponsor.

Other sponsors include Griffith Machine Works, Delano Public Schools, Norwesco, GT Engineering, Landscape Structures, Bagy Jo, Calbrandt, Proto Labs, Tolomatic, and Herald Journal.

The team is looking for more sponsors to help cover the cost of modifications and the $5,000 cost to compete in St. Louis.

The team is made up of Harrison and Brett Bolzer, Mikkelsen, Thoelke, Christian Eidahl, Kincaid Robowtham, Calvin Wolf, Graham Bunn, AJ Giese, Eli Jarwoski, Shane Impola, Zach Poliwada, and mentors Todd and Shelly Bolzer and Chris Tellers.

For more information, follow the link at www.delanoheraldjournal.com.

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