Students with basketball-shooting robot

Battle of the bots

University robotics team to compete in Land O’Lakes college competition

With the 2019 men’s college basketball championships heading to Minneapolis in April, everyone has basketball on their minds. But, members of the University of Minnesota Robotics team are gearing up for a different kind of basketball competition—Land O’Lakes Bot Shot.

The competition challenges students to design and build a robot that can shoot basketballs, pitting collegiate robotics teams against each other for the chance to win a $10,000 prize. After a virtual qualifying round in which the students will showcase their robot’s abilities to shoot from different areas on the court, judges will choose four finalist teams to compete in a live game of H-O-R-S-E in Minneapolis on Sunday, April 7.

The event is sponsored by Land O’Lakes in partnership with AndyMark, Inc., a leading mechanical and electrical parts supplier with a focus on robotics education.

University of Minnesota Robotics, formerly known as GOFIRST, is one of seven collegiate teams participating in the contest.

Founded in 2009, the student robotics team participates in several competitions throughout the year, building everything from an autonomous snowplow to a NASA robot that can function on Mars.  

For the last month, about 10 students from the robotics team have been creating a robot capable of shooting hoops. Since the first draft of the robot had to be done by Feb. 25, the students based most of their design off their “Robot in Three Days” competition, in which the team builds a complete robot in three days.

Laura Irvine, a junior studying mechanical engineering, is the project leader for the Bot Shot team.

“We spent the majority of the time designing because we knew we wouldn’t have that much time to build,” said Irvine, a recipient of both the CSE PTC/FIRST Scholarship and University of Minnesota Iron Range Scholarship. “Probably the biggest design challenge was making sure that the robot was perfect from the start.”

Designing for new challenges

For inspiration, the students looked at some of the best robots in the world from previous FIRST Robotics shooting games.

Assistant project leader Karl Olson, a senior studying materials science and engineering—and recipient of multiple University scholarships, including CSE's Donald L. Johnson Scholarship and CEMS Alumni Scholarship—said the biggest challenge will be consistency and making sure the robot can hit each shot with a certain motor speed and angle.

“There will be a lot of practice time needed to make sure the image from the camera corresponds to the robot’s actions,” Olson said. “And to make sure the robot actually makes the shot.”

Although the shooting aspect of Bot Shot is similar to past FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) games, the students agree that this competition is different from anything they’ve done.

A full-size, regulation basketball has never been used before in FRC. Instead of designing a robot to be really good at one task, this robot must excel not only in shooting from different areas of the court but also in picking up basketballs and moving quickly. 

“This competition offered an opportunity to design something that was very different from any of the things I’ve ever designed,” said Jimmy Donadio, a U Promise Scholarship recipient and junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “But seeing that design you’ve worked very hard and long on eventually come to life is very rewarding.”

Teamwork pays off

Irvine said that working with her teammates is what makes this competition so special.

“What I like about building robots is seeing the end result. Working with the design people and the coding people and just using everyone’s specialties to make one final product is a great experience,” Irvine said.

Irvine said the team is excited to represent the University at the competition.   

“Our group as a whole has been improving the quality of robots we’ve built,” she said. “When the college reached out to us, it was great to be recognized by them for what we do, and we want to make everyone proud. We just really like building robots!”

University of Minnesota Robotics tees off the virtual qualifying round the week of March 11. If they succeed, they’ll compete in a final game of H-O-R-S-E at De LaSalle High School in Minneapolis on April 7.

Story by Olivia Hultgren; video by Sebastian Alfonzo


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