Iron Mosquitoes expand ranks in robotics competition

David Colburn

REGIONAL- The ongoing exploits of the Iron Mosquitos robotics team at Northeast Range School took on a regional flair this year, welcoming members from three other area schools who helped the team secure eighth place among 58 teams competing in the FIRST Robotics Lake Superior Regional at the DECC Arena in Duluth.
Beginning in January with the release of the competition’s game format and basic robot parameters, eleven students from NER, four from North Woods School, two from Ely, and one from Mesabi East, began their efforts under the primary supervision of Iron Mosquitos coach Ryan Lindsay .
“They get about a 125-page manual and then they’ve got to figure out how to design something to play that game,” Lindsay said. “The kids started meeting and doing some wood prototypes and drawings and some CAD work and then they just kept going from there.”
This year, student-designed robots had two ways to score points. One was to collect balls and either drop them into a lower goal or shoot them into a higher goal, and the other was to use makeshift arms to climb rungs on a vertical ladder. While FIRST Robotics dictates the basic footprint for robots, it’s up to students to design, create, and program, and operate all of the intricate electrical and mechanical components that go into them.
Many people got a glimpse of the 2020 version of these robots in action shortly after the onset of the COVID pandemic, when students used the primary and backup Iron Mosquitos units to provide contactless delivery of groceries to customers in the parking lots of Zup’s Grocery stores in Babbitt, Ely, and Tower.
Ely, North Woods, and Tower’s charter school started robotics teams in recent years, but for the time being those efforts have been suspended, Lindsay said.
“The pandemic sort of killed Ely and North Woods, and with adults moving and different things changing it just kind of took the wind out of the sails just as they were getting going,” he said. “We love having all the kids on our team, but we hope eventually that those teams get started back up. We’ve been trying to get more schools in the area just because we think it’s such a great experience for kids. ”
This year’s team was relatively young, comprised mostly of eighth-graders, freshmen, and sophomores, but they received a lot of experienced assistance, Lindsay said.
“We have mentors who graduated from the team four and five years ago who came back on weekends to help out the kids and show them some stuff,” he said. “We had a professional Java programmer from Cook, Walter Harrier, who worked with one of our students. We didn’t know who was going to be doing (coding) this year, and then Hailey Lindquist from Babbitt stepped up. Walter just volunteers and he put in lots of hours with the kids. It’s neat to have them work with a professional programmer. ”
Other adults who contributed significant volunteer hours to help out included Ryan Denzer-Johnson, Chad Wills, Chris Daugherty, and Chris Koivisto, Lindsay said.
In qualifying rounds at the Lake Superior Regional, six robots competed simultaneously, splitting into teams of three that changed each round. The Iron Mosquitos won six of the nine qualifying rounds, and in the process discovered that at least one aspect of the shooting mechanism on their robot that worked in practice did not do so well in the DECC Arena.
“We have what’s called a Limelight on the top. It’s a vision processing system and we color-coded it to look at and center on reflective tape on the target, ”Lindsay said. “It worked in our library, but it didn’t work there. With the angle of where it was and the bright screens and lights in the background, the Limelight couldn’t pick out the reflective tape, so our driver had to shut that off and do it manually. ”
“The kids didn’t really know how it was going to perform out on the field and weren’t really in tune with the buttons and how it was going to work,” Lindsay said. “We were working until 10 or 11 at night for a couple of weeks before the tournament, and we just couldn’t get a lot of driver practicing because we were still putting on parts, even on the morning we left.”
Schools formed three-member alliances for Saturday’s playoff rounds.
“We ended up being the sixth-seed alliance captain, so then you had to pick other teams to play with you in your squad of three in the elimination tournament.”
The Iron Mosquitos teamed up with Cambridge-Isanti High School and Lincoln Jr./Sr. Lake City High School for their quarterfinal match against Rocori High School, a three-school combined team from Iowa City, Iowa, and Dassel-Cokato High School, and that’s where the Iron Mosquitos reached the end of the road, winning one game but losing two to be eliminated.
Major sponsors of the Iron Mosquitos include Apple, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, USBank, NASA, the Gene Haas Foundation, Babbitt VFW Post 1539 Auxiliary, and Pebble Spa, but Lindsay would like to see major Iron Range companies step up to help support an expanded number of teams in the region.
“I feel like there should be regional funding from some of the bigger industries up here,” he said. “A lot of times it’s targeted at things like engineers, but kids that want to be electricians, kids that want to be mechanics, those are direct applications in robotics to industries up here. It would be fun to have a big network of Range teams. ”

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