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Bemidji area robotics teams compete for the first time in a year

The first-ever Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference invitational event was put together for the robotics teams of the region who otherwise would have gone without a competition season. he tournament held, Saturday, April 17, featured 24 teams from around the area.

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Bemidji’s William Coan, left, and Avery Gieser set up their robot to compete on April 17, 2021, at the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- It was shaping up to be a year without a competition for the Bemidji High School RoboJacks -- and other high school robotics teams throughout the country.

After a year without a new game challenge, any announcements from FIRST Robotics -- the international youth robotics organization -- or much hope, a homegrown tournament led by other area coaches came together and was recently held at the Sanford Center.

The first-ever Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference invitational event was put together for the robotics teams of the region who otherwise would have gone without a competition season. It also seemed to be one of the first in-person robotics tournaments in the country since COVID hit. Typically, the event is called the championship event and takes place in October, but was canceled due to the pandemic. The Bemidji tournament was unsanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League or FIRST Robotics.

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The RoboJacks’ robot competes on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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According to the RoboJacks website, “To our knowledge, this is only the second competition in the world and the first in the United States since the pandemic shut down so many things. As such, the team is excited to be part of this unique opportunity.”

The tournament held, Saturday, April 17, featured 24 teams from around the area -- with some familiar faces from around the area including two teams from Cass Lake-Bena, a team from Kelliher and one from Nevis. The RoboJacks ended the competition in the quarter-final round, after four rounds of qualifying matches. The Backwoods Bots from Bigfork, Minn. won the overall competition.

Prior to this, the Pioneer caught up with the RoboJacks in the industrial technology room at BHS, as they tinkered with their robot.

Getting back to competing

On Thursday, April 15, the build team was hard at work making modifications to their robot at Bemidji High School.

Another corner of the room held programmers, gathered around a computer. In the other wing, the business team discussed fundraising strategies.

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The RoboJacks prepare their robot for the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference after school on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The RoboJacks are down some members of the team this year, as COVID-19 put a stop to regular competition. This led some regular members to opt not to return for the season, and made it difficult for the team to recruit freshmen members.

The team this year has 17 members -- which are broken down into subteams -- programming, build and business. Some of the larger subteams were further split into smaller groups for contact tracing purposes, so if someone in the group were to get sick, the whole team wouldn’t be down for the count.

Typically, volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. For example, an engineer might help out the build team, a marketing professional might guide the business team, but these relationships were harder to cultivate during the pandemic.

“If there's one thing I wish we had more of, it’s more mentors,” RoboJacks Coach Kirk Anderson said. He added that if any professionals in the area would like to help out as mentors for the robotics team in the future, to get in touch via the RoboJacks website.

“We are quite excited about the possibility of having any type of competition this year,” Anderson said, ahead of the competition. He is new to the head coach position this year, taking over for former robotics coach Chris Conway.

Build team member Abigail Termont said the event was always a possibility, so the team had been preparing, but that they initially had low expectations.

“As initial information was going out, it was, ‘we're planning for this, but don't get your hopes up too far.’ So (the plan has) kind of always been there and it's only gotten more detailed,” she said. “We're gonna try to make sure we do this and to keep it as safe as possible.”

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RoboJacks coach Kirk Anderson looks on as students work on their robot on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Abigail Johnson, business team lead, said the groups were meeting in some capacity while the school was in distance learning or hybrid, planning for the possibility of competing.

“We were doing mostly Google Meets (meetings), just trying to come up with a plan. I know build team members were like measuring parts at home. And the business team mostly worked on outreach, trying to figure out where sponsors were with this year,” Johnson said.

In a typical year, the FIRST Robotics would release a game or challenge early in the year, giving teams time to build a robot to compete for the upcoming competition season. As there was no official season this year, there was no new challenge. This meant teams were competing with their 2019-2020 robots, giving them much more time than usual to work the kinks out.

Termont said the group was making some modifications to the way the robot shoots out foam balls and the robot’s extendable hanging arm.

The lack of in-person events also made fundraising for the team more difficult.

“When (the conference championship) is local, it's also a good chance for local businesses and organizations to check out. Since they are the ones who are spending money on the team it's a good chance to see in person what's going on with it,” Anderson said.

Homegrown tournament

The local competition event was the culmination of a labor of love -- local teams even built the game pieces used on the field.

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The RoboJacks control their robot on April 17, 2021, at the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference at the Sanford Center in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“The main movers and shakers of getting the event going have been Jesse Frost and Matt Wendlund from Cass Lake-Bena High School,” Anderson said ahead of the event. “There have been several other area coaches that have also put hours of work into making this happen.”

Frost currently serves as the President of the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference.

This year’s game was called “Infinite Recharge” and had a Star Wars theme. Robots in alliances could earn points by throwing balls into various goals and hanging off of a balancing rail.

If you’ve never been to a robotics competition before, expect the following: colorful lights, festive team outfits, a glowing game field, students wheeling around large robots and flying balls.

This homegrown competition was no different. Though there were a few technical snags and snafus, overall the event carried on smoothly.

On April 17, the Sanford Center was once again filled with lights, student innovation, and almost certainly smiles. The face masks did little to muffle the long-held cheers.

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Bemidji senior Dylan Thomas, head programmer for the RoboJacks, works on their robot after school on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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