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May 29, 2012

A FIRST for Willmar: Minnesota FIRST Robotics Team Builds Basketball-Bot

The world is now one step closer to a level playing field between robots and humans. That might be an overstatement, but the Willmar FIRST Robotics team has developed a robot that can play basketball. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and is a competition held annually to inspire young inventors and entrepreneurs. Started in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the challenge this year was to build a robot that could maneuver over mini basketballs, pick them up, line up a shot and shoot. Willmar’s was one of many robots which competed in a tournament of three-on-three games this spring called the Rebound Rumble.  

The Minnesota high school’s robotics team was made up of 15 students from all four grades, and for six weeks the team members gave up their after-school plans and Saturdays to dedicate themselves to building a robot that could meet the challenge. School advisers Dave Chambers and Mike Kroeker put the team together and used a NASA grant available to first-year teams to get the project off the ground. Each student had a different job in working on the robot, including sophomore Kyle Stulen who served as the lead programmer and senior Jaikob Isle, the electrical engineer and team captain.

The team raised funds to buy parts and sought engineers as mentors from the community, such as Willmar engineer David Frey and several others from Nova-Tech. Area businesses also contributed cash and material donations to help the team finish their robot in time to compete. In competition, Willmar’s robot managed to make high scores in one round, and could successfully navigate around a barrier placed in the middle of the court.

Though opposing teams offered lots of friendly advice, the difficulty for the Willmar team this may have been their “rookie” status. Chambers said more experienced teams knew to focus on certain aspects of the challenge, while their team “wanted to do it all,” and wound up with difficulties in technique and time management. The team gave itself room for improvement next year, and some of the members from this year will return to mentor, including Isles.

With more than $14 million in scholarships awarded to FIRST students every year, the program is popular and likely to gain more interested students as the years go on. The skills learned in the competition can lead students towards careers in technology or engineering, and Kroeker considers it a great advantage for the students to be able to meet people like David Frey, who worked on FIRST Robotics Team 135 about 15 years ago. Frey said of his mentoring: “I considered it an honor to be involved in the startup of the Willmar robotics team, and they should all be proud,” adding “This is a lot to pull off.”

Kroeker said the oft-repeated phrase about the competition is “the team gets together to build a robot, but the robot builds the team.” Next year the Willmar FIRST Robotics team will have the added advantage of building upon this year’s model, and being able to practice driving the older robot before building their own.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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