Rise of the machines: Robots shoot hoops

MINNEAPOLIS — The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers

have nothing on the Robo Runners or Lightning Turtles.

Wait, the who?

Those were just two of the more than 60 teams competing at Rebound Rumble, a

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics

competition in which teams build robots designed to shoot foam basketballs at

hoops. High school teams from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Tennessee

participated in this weekend’s regional event held on the University of

Minnesota campus.

Mariucci Arena and Williams Arena, which typically host Golden Gophers hockey

and basketball, housed sweet-shooting machines (think more Mars Rover than, say,

I, Robot).

While basketball games are typically played between two teams, the Rebound

Rumble pits two alliances against each other. Each alliance is made up of three

robots from three different teams. Those robots attempt to score on four

baskets of differing heights during a two-minute, 15-second period. Each basket

counts for varying point totals, depending on the height of the basket.

Not all of the Robot Rumble participants play basketball, but they know how to

build robots that do.

“I guarantee you, if you said play a real basketball game (with robots),

the kids here could do it,” said Wesley Sandholm, a senior at Tartan High

School in Oakdale, Minn. “They could build something that would do

it.”

Teams have six weeks to build their robots, and they’re designed entirely by

high school students. Just like in the NBA, there’s a lengthy rulebook — about

50 to 60 pages — that says what teams can and can’t do while working on their

robots.

“The rulebook is pretty sizable,” Sandholm said.

Each team has mentors — many of whom work in the engineering field for

companies such as 3M, Pentair and NASA — but the mentors are hands-off when it

comes to building the robots. They’re mainly there for support.

“They do it on their own time,” said Rachel Hoke, also a Tartan High

School senior. “They’re not getting (paid). They’re volunteering, and

they’re amazing.”

Bruce Newendorp is an engineering mentor for the Swartdogs, a team from Cedar

Rapids, Iowa. His team was the most veteran group at this weekend’s regional

event, having been together since 1999. Some of the Swartdogs’ previous members

came back to help out at the event this weekend.

From the time the objective of the Rebound Rumble was announced on Jan. 7, the

Swartdogs spent countless hours working on their robot.

“Our team meets essentially every day for that six weeks, every evening,

every weekend,” Newendorp said. “We take two days off, and that’s the

nights before finals. Otherwise we have a meeting every day. It’s very intense

to get this built in six weeks.”

For the first 15 seconds of each match, the robots must operate independently

of the drivers. After that, members of each team control their robots, working

with the other two teams in their alliance to score as many baskets as

possible. Some robots are designed specifically to score on only one height of a

hoop, while others shoot from longer range, capable of scoring on any hoop.

During Saturday’s finals, the lights were dimmed at Williams Arena except for

those shining on the center court. Fans filled the lower-level seats, cheering

as each team was announced before the games. Team flags were waved before the

match as mascots ran up and down the sidelines to pump up the crowd.

The competitors on the court may have been made of metal, but the Rumble was

just as intense as any other big-time basketball game — minus the trash

talking.

“It is amazing how much teams help each other out and work together,”

Hoke said. “I think that’s one of the big things that I really like about

this competition — you’re not alone in a competition. It’s not, ‘Oh, what can

we do to knock out (the other team)?’ You’re working together and having this

great experience.”

Added Newendorp: “It’s a competition, but you want everybody to win.”

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