The Hutchinson Middle School Robotics team has a high bar to reach this year, but it’s their own fault. They set that bar last year.

“It’s been stressful, but it’s going well,” said Carter Hausladen, a seventh-grader in his second year with the Tigerbots. “When I see the robot works well, I know it’s going to pay off.”

For the past few years, the Tigerbots have come together to design, build and program a robot capable of carrying out tasks in an arena. Competitions, which are organized locally as part of a national league, include obstacles and challenges based on a theme. This year’s theme is Skystone and calls for robots capable of lifting and moving bricks onto a platform. For bonus points, teams can have their robot move the platform without losing bricks, and have their robot visually detect bricks with certain images to be moved first.

Each match includes four robots, with two teams facing off against two others.

It all came together last year for the Tigerbots, as experience the middle schoolers had acquired over the past few years led to their first tournament win, a second tournament win, and then the finals in their state division.

“I at least would like to see us at state again,” said Hausladen.

The team has been at it since the start of the school year, meeting every Tuesday and Thursday evening. Team members will need to step up and overcome the loss of several experienced eighth-graders who went on to high school this year. New younger students have filled out the 18-member team.

“It starts that learning curve all over again for what is a challenging skill set,” said Dan Scheele, team coach.

To help ease the transition, several former team members have returned to help out as mentors. It’s not uncommon for students in the high school program to return to the middle school or elementary robotics programs as volunteers, adding their experience to that of parent volunteers. Scheele sees another state showing within reach.

“We have the support network to do it,” he said. “The team is competitive, but you also need to temper that with knowing there is a lot for people to learn, and you need to have fun.”

On Tuesday evening this past week, the team started the process of determining who would fill critical roles in competition. In addition to its programmed, automated systems, the robot needs a pilot to move it and another to control attachments. The team also needs a student-coach to call the shots during competitions, make sure the pilots notice opportunities to score points, and match their strategy to what time is left on the clock.

“You need drivers who work well together and who will listen to the (student) coach,” Scheele said. “It’s easy to get distracted. There is a lot of excitement and stress there.”

A fourth team member will be able to add bricks to the arena as others are used.

Seventh-grader Philip Kirkpatrick is the team’s lead CAD designer. Tigerbot designers use SolidWorks to model robot parts that are 3D printed. Kirkpatrick started the role last year.

“I was slightly interested, and since no one else was I got dumped with it and I’ve stuck with it,” he said, adding that he enjoys it but “sometimes it gets frustrating.”

Kirkpatrick said he isn’t satisfied with the current build of the team’s robot. One, which the team is working with, has been built. But another in the works could take center stage as team members iterate on the design and make improvements.

“We need a variety of things,” Kirkpatrick said.

He highlighted the robot’s ability to see a picture on certain blocks and target those blocks first for extra points as one automated process most in need of improvement.

“Last year, one thing I was really proud of with the team is they just keep striving to get better,” Scheele said Tuesday. “After they won the first tournament, they could have decided not to do anything before the state tournament. Instead, they added functionality and got even better for the second tournament, and between there and state they added an automated collector to make things even faster. You can already see that happening this year.”

The Hutchinson Middle School Tigerbots’ qualifying tournaments are only a few weeks away. The first is Saturday, Nov. 23, in Lakeville, and then Saturday, Dec. 7, in Maple Grove.

While they still have work to do before competition, the Tigerbots seem to be bringing all together for another big season.

“They are continuing to improve on the design,” Scheele said, “and we haven’t even done driver testing.”

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