BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – According to astrology, Gemini don’t get buried in the past and instead focus on the future and optimism.
A Fort Madison robotics team comprised of high school students from Fort Madison and Holy Trinity Catholic, built a robot called “Gemini’ for a second shot at a regional robotics competition called FRC or FIRST Robotic Competition in Sedalia, Mo earlier this month.
After finishing 61st out of 61 teams last year in Cedar Falls, the team regrouped and put a focus on the 2018 experience and where they needed to be to get in the game in 2019. The team is mentored by Joseph and Shalisse Johnstun, who teach history and English, respectively, at FMHS.
After a day of qualifying where the CyberHounds won 5 of 10 qualifying matches, the team got a reputation for playing solid defense in the hyper competitive game-plays where robots had to perform tasks in competition arenas.
The qualifying matches consisted of random alliances of three teams pitted against another alliance of three teams. The alliance with the most points wins the match.
‘Gemini’ didn’t have the same mechanics for some of the tasks as the other robots, some of which were built with the support of national players like NASA and Boeing, so the team quickly shifted to a defensive posture. A move that was quickly mimicked by other teams.
After the end of qualifying, the top eight teams automatically qualify for the quarterfinals and those teams get to pick which two teams they want in their alliance for a shot at the title. The CyberHounds didn’t make the top eight but were selected 11th out of the remaining 28 teams to be on an alliance.
The CyberHounds alliance competed in the final two best-of-three quarterfinal matches, against the alliance that would end up winning the competition. The first match ended in a 63-63 draw with the opponents winning due to a penalty point. The second match was won by the opponents by one point, causing the CyberHounds to miss the semifinals by one point.
Despite coming up short in the semifinals, the CyberHounds didn’t come away empty handed. A team was awarded the competition’s Team Spirit Award out of all the competitors.
Shyannah Hoenig said a team of judges visited all the team’s pits and observed the team work not just internally, but also networking with other teams and gave Fort Madison the honor.
She said the team was well-prepared for the competition this year after going the rough competition last year.
The Elliott Test Kitchen became a sponsor of the team by advising on coordinating the efforts of the team at the Test Kitchen and providing space and meals to the kids on the team.
Test Kitchen founder Kumar Wickramasingha said it was an exciting time for him to see the kids competing as the event was live-streamed over the Internet.
“As a comparison this year we were automatically already a lot stronger. As a bot we stabilized more things and protected what was important,” she said.
Jace Fedler, a senior at Fort Madison High School and the leader of the group, said the team was overwhelmed last year, but the experience prepared them better for this year’s attempt.
“It was us biting off more than we could chew last year, but where we are now is just leaps and bounds ahead of what we ever would have expected out of this year,” Fedler said.
The team had six weeks to build the robot, in addition to fundraising and planning for the competition.
The team consists of 18 students, 14 of which went to the competition. Part of the team focused on fundraising, while others handled marketing the program to the community and others physically built the robot.
Tim Watkins, one of the students who helped build the 2018 robot and the 2019 robot said last year’s failure was this year’s reward.
“The first year, it was really a surprise when we got in there and saw everything, but it was also really encouraging because you saw the cooperation among the teams and you felt like it was a great place to be,” Watkins said. “You knew you were kind of on the first step and you knew you had to do a lot more.”
The team was able to generate almost $10,000 in funding, not including in-kind donations from sponsors to enter the competition, and pay for food and accommodations for all 14 team members who traveled.
Area companies such as Iowa Fertilizer Company, Mohrfeld Electric, Huffman Welding & Machine, Matt’s Greenhouse, Silgan Containers, Seither & Cherry, Lee County Bank, Axalta, The Madison, Steffensmeier Welding & Mfg. and Elliott Test Kitchen helped in advisory and financial functions to get the program to the next level.
Michael Mohrfeld, president of Mohrfeld Electric, said on Tuesday he was proud of how well the team did.
“I’m just stupid proud,” he said. “These kids get it and they’re really, really smart. I mean some of these kids… whoa. There gonna lose a couple of seniors, but I’m excited for them.”
The competition was created by Segway inventor Dean Kaman, who founded For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) with MIT Engineering profession Woodie Flower.