With AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blaring overhead, members of Washburn High School’s robotics team, the Millerbots, pointed to the camera and smiled before their first quarterfinal match of the Minnesota North Star Regional robotics tournament.
When the opening bell rang, the Millerbots drove their robot onto the playing field and used it to pick up a small disc, which the robot secured on a cargo container. The team worked for two minutes to place rubber balls into the containers and secure them with the discs, before navigating the robot back to the launch pad.
The match was part of the playoffs at the 60-team North Star tournament, held March 27-30 at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena. The Millerbots, competing in an alliance with teams from Edina and Minnetonka, won all six of their playoff matches, taking first place in the tournament.
The three teams each earned a berth in the national First Robotics Competition, set for April 24-27 in Detroit, where they will form new alliances.
“Every single year, we’ve just been getting better,” senior Grant Ober said. “I feel like this was the culmination of the last four years of learning stuff.”
Washburn’s robotics team has about 30 students. The team meets through much of the year, but its main season runs from early January into March, when it builds its robot and competes in a regional tournament.
Each year, the national organization called First chooses a different theme and rules for competition. In this year’s game, “Destination: Deep Space,” teams earn points when their robots exit the starting platform, store cargo in ships on the playing field and secure cargo with hatch panels.
“Balls won’t count as points unless you put the hatches on the cover,” senior Thomas Schroeder said.
Captain Olivia Donney said the Millerbots were focused this year on doing a few things really well instead of trying to do everything. She said the team’s robot is really good at filling the ships with rubber balls, which is a key way to score points.
Ober noted a side-to-side sliding mechanism on the robot that allows it to secure the hatch panels more easily. He said the mechanism that allows the robot to pick up the balls and place them in the cargo ship has been working well.
Schroeder, who drives the robot, said the team’s strategy changes each game, depending on the opponents. He said he’s been scouting teams who made the national tournament and that he expects the competition to be tougher in Detroit.
Schroeder noted that it had been eight years since the Millerbots last won a regional tournament. The team made nationals last year after winning an award for promoting engineering in the community.
Donney pointed to improved management when asked what’s made this year so successful. She said team leaders have tried to make younger participants feel more welcomed and added that the team has tripled its budget in two years by increasing fundraising.
Assistant coach Peter Grul, who founded the team in 2008 and teaches engineering and robotics at Washburn, said he felt this year’s team had a good chance to do well at regionals. He said the team’s robot-driving skills have improved since he stepped down as head coach a few years ago.
Grul said a handful of Washburn alumni, including some who weren’t on the robotics team, came to the regional tournament last month. He noted the team’s maturation over the years into a well-functioning, student-run group.
“We’re not scrappy underdogs anymore,” he said. “We’re real contenders.”