Members of the Farmington Public Schools Hackbots 3414 robotics team pose with their hardware after placing first and winning the Midland FIRST Robotics Invitational in March.

Members of the Farmington Public Schools Hackbots 3414 robotics team pose with their hardware after placing first and winning the Midland FIRST Robotics Invitational in March.

Photo by Andy Whydell


FPS robotics team ranks highest in team history

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published May 8, 2019

 This year, the Hackbots 3414 team decided to name their robot “Draco,” after a constellation that looks like a dragon.

This year, the Hackbots 3414 team decided to name their robot “Draco,” after a constellation that looks like a dragon.

Photo by Andy Whydell

 Alliances comprising three different robotics teams and their robots compete together against other alliances in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition championships at Detroit’s Cobo Center in April.

Alliances comprising three different robotics teams and their robots compete together against other alliances in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition championships at Detroit’s Cobo Center in April.

Photo provided by FIRST Robotics Competition

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FARMINGTON — When the Hackbots 3414 robotics team members started their season in early October 2018, they had no idea they would eventually be competing in the playoffs at this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition in Detroit, earning their highest team rank since the team’s inception in 2010 by making it to the semifinals.

Even though the team previously qualified for the FIRST championships in 2013 and 2017, they knew there was no guarantee they would make it back this year.

“We definitely thought we deserved to be there, and if we followed our strategy that we set at the beginning of the season in early October, we knew we had a chance we could be there,” said head coach Steve Trachsel. “I wouldn’t say we were sure we would get there, but we were excited when we finally got to that point.”

Teams compete in two different invitationals in or around their local cities in an attempt to qualify for the state level. From the state finals, teams then compete to qualify for a spot in the FIRST championships among 30,000 other students spanning 1,400 teams from more than 70 countries.

The FIRST Robotics organization that runs the tournament worldwide tries to give the events the pomp and circumstance of a sporting event. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Teams have six weeks at the beginning of the season to start from scratch and build a robot to compete in the year’s challenge game, which changes each year. This year the game was called “Destination Deep Space,” said Toby Clarke, the deputy director of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“The playing field contained three core challenges. They had to handle two different game pieces, the hatch panel and the cargo ball,” Clarke said. “The third thing they had to do was depart and return to their habitat, which involved the robot climbing to different levels.”

With 80 students on this year’s team, the Hackbots felt they had enough hands to share the workload to build a robot that could accomplish all three of those challenges.

“We decided the most effective robot was going to be something that could get all the low-level points on the field and be able to climb to level two and three,” said Emily Peterson, the Hackbots 3414 team captain.

“We faced a couple setbacks early on, including our climber,” she said. “We had the whole design as a lead screw system that ended up not working out.”

Halted by this functionality failure, the team headed back to the drawing board and decided to switch the old system out with a rack-and-pinion system, which ended up performing even better than they could’ve asked for. According to Trachsel, these types of improvements have to be made often in the early development stages, and also amidst several rounds of intense competition, which is something he attributes with the success they were able to achieve this season and previously.

“One of our strategies is we’re really never done with the robot. Even as something starts to work, there’s always ways to make it better,” he said. “Kind of like racing — at the championships we had to fix the robot at every single stage, sometimes in between matches, just to get it back out there again.”

The robots, however, aren’t the only ones that tend to improve over the course of the robotics season. A broad range of skills are needed for the competition and a chance to win an award. Students and teams, while focused on building the best possible robot, are also learning how to create business plans and graphics, build a website, present and communicate their thoughts effectively, and more.

Clarke hopes that through the FIRST program, they can instill these technical or academic skills and also soft skills, like self-confidence, communication, collaboration, tolerance and kind leadership. Trachsel gives credit to the FIRST Robotics Competition for creating a culture and providing the space for not just robotics, but all the other topics the program invites and encourages students to explore.

“FIRST does a nice job of mimicking real businesses so the students are getting that experience at a high school level in order to prepare them for college or a career after that,” Trachsel said.

As the team already begins to look forward to next year’s season, Peterson left them with an uplifting message to not forget or look past the good things that happened throughout this season.

“There’s a lot of time where the climber goes wrong, or when you have a final the next day but you’re up till midnight working on the robot. Those things can easily set you back,” she said, “but if you look further, and you look at the end goal, then there’s more than just that one night that didn’t go right. There’s always a bigger picture.”

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