Washtenaw County robotics teams are battle-tested heading into the FIRST world championship

ANN ARBOR, MI – For lack of a better phrase, the Chelsea High School robotics team ran into some “technical difficulties” during the FIRST In Michigan District competition last Saturday, leaving the team to sweat it out to see if it would qualify for the 2022 FIRST Championship in Houston, Texas.

The team, also named Technical Difficulties, experienced some electrical bugs that led to an unexpected 77th-place finish during the state competition, but learned it had qualified as one of 64 teams for the world competition, based on some other teams ahead of it who had opted not to compete.

With those issues behind, Technical Difficulties head coach Kirk Findlay said he’s hoping for a performance this week that is more characteristic of the most historic season the team has had in its 17-year history, earning a No. 22 ranking in the state prior to the state competition.

“This is the first year that we’ve really been able to go out and make a name for ourselves out there,” Findlay said, noting it was just the second time the Chelsea team has qualified for the world competition.

Technical Difficulties is one of three teams from Washtenaw County representing Michigan during the FIRST Championship, which begins competition on Thursday. April 21. Joining Chelsea are Ann Arbor Skyline High School’s team Skyline Robotics, and Whitmore Lake High School’s team the TroBots.

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, includes competitions with strict rules and limited time and resources where teams of high school students are challenged to build industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game in alliance with other teams. Teams are also charged with fundraising to meet their goals, designing a team “brand,” and advancing respect and appreciation for STEM within the local community.

Competing in Michigan, which has one of the devout FIRST robotics followings with 476 teams, has left the teams battle tested and optimistic they can perform well on the big stage, Findlay said.

“Because Michigan is the biggest district in all FIRST, the competition here is stiff,” Findlay said. “What we’re going to see at worlds is not going to be hugely better than what we’re seeing at the Michigan state competition. And I think we’re going to be able to do OK. ”

Participating in FIRST competitions requires commitment, with teams beginning preparations for the season in the fall before the building season begins on Jan. 1. Each year teams are given a new game challenge and have six weeks to build their robots before the first competition. Teams earn points at two district competitions to earn points, along with the state competition where points are tripled, to determine which 64 teams from Michigan qualify for the world championship.

Preparation includes practicing four nights a week, Ann Arbor Skyline mentor Bob McGinnis said, making the time commitment similar to a varsity sport. Skyline’s team is comprised of 40 students, a faculty advisor, a lead mentor, six additional mentors and a “very dedicated parent committee.”

While the huge support system has helped the team earn a No. 13 ranking in the state to go with two district banners, three medals and four awards this season, McGinnis said Skyline is dedicated to being a student-driven team.

“This means we expect students to design, build, program and maintain the robot throughout the season,” he said. “The role of mentors is to provide direction, advice, and project management guidance. We set our goals each year to make it to the state tournament and be ranked in the top 15% of the state. Our team leadership identified several key points to make sure this happens every year – build a simple and strong robot, finish the robot early so programming and drivers get plenty of practice, and keep improving the robot throughout the season. ”

While competition can be intense in FIRST robotics, both Skyline and Chelsea coaches remarked that collaboration is a big part of the sport.

For Chelsea High School, that has meant opening up its new Robotics Center to other teams from the area. The center was created from bond funds with the school district providing space for district robotics participants in grades K-12.

“It’s given us a chance to really work together and practice in ways that we’ve never been able to do before,” Findlay said of the new robotics center. “We were able to build our robot faster and have more time to practice. Those things are part of what’s really helped us push things over the top. ”

While teams haven’t singled out specific goals for the world championships in Houston this week, the general consensus is they’ll be ready for major competition.

McGinnis noted that during a quarterfinal match at the state competition, Skyline and Chelsea competed against each other to combine for the highest score in the world.

“The main goal is to have fun and enjoy the experience,” he said. “However, since Michigan has the most robotics teams than any other state, we are ready to compete with gracious professionalism and see how things turn out.”

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