When the Diagonal HotSpots joined the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition in the fall of 2018, the team members said they couldn’t imagine they would be state qualifiers. After the most recent competition, the team has clenched its spot among 48 other Iowa teams for the second year in a row.
“Last year we had no idea what we were getting into,” said HotSpots coach Taylor Bentley. “This year we are ready, we know what to expect.”
FIRST Tech Challenge
The FIRST Tech Challenge is an annual robotics competition that has a different game with slightly different rules each year without changing the core essentials of the competition. Teams must design, build, program and drive their own robots.
“We have improved a lot,” said team programmer Calli Herr. “Last year we went into it and we had no idea what to expect. We went into the first meet with basic wheels and hoped the robot could just push stuff around.”
The teams go to meets and tournaments where they compete in several matches. Each match consists of four robots on two temporary alliances, thus enforcing teamwork and competition simultaneously in a manner referred to as ‘gracious professionalism.’ Helping other teams is viewed equally important as placing well in competitions, and sometimes the former can be integral to the latter.
“Our biggest challenge was probably working with the other robots,” said team outreach coordinator Skyler Stamps. “We have a robot that thinks for itself more than the alliance members, so we had to code our robot to work with our alliance better.”
This year, robots have to place interlocking brick cubes on moving platforms and push the platforms to goals. Bonus points are awarded if the robot can do it autonomously during a designated period, requiring students to advance their coding knowledge to get the advantage.
Built for success
The team members said the robot was designed to be smaller with fewer moving parts than other robots, allowing for speed, balance and mobility.
“The competition this year, stacking the blocks, is definitely different from the competition last year,” said lead builder Kade Klommhaus. “Having a stable base that is able to be secure while we are high in the air and stacking blocks was definitely a big challenge. Keeping it stable and able.”
Aside from the regular scoring methods, there are two distinct periods of the match that award crucial bonus points for robots that perform more difficult tasks. There is the 30 second autonomous period at the beginning of the match and a driver-controlled ‘endgame’ at the end of the match. During this time, the drivers of the robot must move the goal and relocate their robot into that zone to score even more bonus points.
“In endgame, we have to make it in the build-zone after we pull out our build plates,” said Klommhaus. “So we pull it out and use our tape measure to shoot into the build zone, which technically counts as us being inside.”
The robot has a motorized tape measure mounted to the side, an idea gained from another team during a competition.
“They just had it zip-tied to their robot with a motor attached to it,” said Klommhaus. “We looked up some ideas and how other people did it. We designed a holder for it to make it more stable and shared it with the team we got the idea from so they could use it as well.”
Other changes were made to the robot throughout the season, primarily to provide further stability.
“Our first meet we went with a narrow and long body,” said Klommhaus. “We tried it to keep it balanced and as small as possible. We had to change that, making it longer and a little taller. It made it more stable all around.”
There is an equally important, non-robot-based side of the competition that involves team record keeping and community outreach. Responsibilities for these are headed by the team historian Kerrigan Mobley and the outreach coordinator Skyler Stamps.
“I reach out to local organizations like newspapers and radio stations and give information about our team,” said Stamps. “Outreach is a huge part of FIRST Tech Challenge and robotics. You get many of your awards from connecting with your community and getting more people aware.”
The Diagonal HotSpots have won the Connect and Motivate awards, both of which deal with community involvement and practicing gracious professionalism.
It takes a village
Little room was left on the risers of the Diagonal High School gym during the HotSpots’ demonstration Tuesday night. Despite being a town of a few hundred, the turnout to support the robotics team is far from unusual.
“We have the best fan group and community in all of our league,” said Stamps. “At our meets, our crowd has been over half the total crowd. They’re always curious at how we did or are doing.”
The team has been supported by the community both emotionally and financially, with Diagonal’s Excel Engineering being the leading sponsor of the team, calling it an investment in the students and the community, providing an opportunity for potential engineers to experiment.
“I think programming is the reason I wanted to start doing robotics,” said Herr. “Our coach is also our teacher and she had this coding class where we got to build smaller versions of robots. I absolutely loved it and wanted to keep doing it.”
Erin Sobotka, member of the HotSpots’ build team, said the support is the team’s secret weapon.
“Our biggest strength is our community,” said Sobotka. “We have had a lot of donations and the people in our community support us so much. They travel to some of our closer meets and if they aren’t there, they’re supporting us on social media.”
“When we want to put on an event, they come,” said Bentley. “When we want to host something for the kids, our elementary teachers let us do it. With a population of 324, we have almost half the town every time we do something.”
The Diagonal HotSpots will be competing in the state competition Feb. 29 at the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center in Cedar Rapids. Top placing teams at this event will go on to compete at the FTC World Championship later this spring.