Anoka High School robot finishes second at regionals


Sparky lofts a basketball from the three-point line. The Spalding floats in a perfect arc then – swish – hits nothing but net as it sinks through the rim.

Chad Tofteland, Anoka High School Robotics Team mechanical captain, poses with Sparky, a basketball playing robot built by the team for the March 30-31 regional robotics competition at the University of Minnesota. Sparky is wrapped in plastic because regional robotics contest rules state that after working on the robot for no more than six months, team members must leave it untouched until the competition begins. Photo by Sue Austreng

Chad Tofteland, Anoka High School Robotics Team mechanical captain, poses with Sparky, a basketball playing robot built by the team for the March 30-31 regional robotics competition at the University of Minnesota. Sparky is wrapped in plastic because regional robotics contest rules state that after working on the robot for no more than six months, team members must leave it untouched until the competition begins. Photo by Sue Austreng

Now, Sparky can’t pass or dribble. He’s no good for rebounds since his vertical jump is 0.0” but he’s an all star player by Anoka High School’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team standards.

The robotics team, operating under the tag Deus Ex Machina (Lord of the Machines), entered Sparky as competitor in the 2012 regional robotics team competition, staged at the University of Minnesota March 30 and 31.

And Sparky and his team of creators proved to be fine competitors, finishing in second place among the 61 teams competing.

“They (the team) did great. The robot behaved very well. It was awesome. It was so awesome – and we’ve never done this well at regions before,” said Kathy Messer, AHS tech para who has worked with the school’s robotics teams for three years.

AHS robotics team mechanical captain, senior Chad Tofteland, sang Sparky praises after the regional tournament.

“He did so well. The last (semi-final) match, everything went perfectly. Every shot went in,” Tofteland said.

Sparky and the Lord of the Machines team advanced to the finals but then ran into trouble.

Deus Ex Machina robotics team
These Anoka High School students built a robot, Sparky, and competed in the 2012 regional robotics competition, finishing in second place:
Programming Team: Noah Stokes, Matthew Wrenn, Michael Crain-Flor (programming captain)
Electrical Team: Patrick Lange, David Witalka (electrical captain)
Mechanical Team: Angus Jameson, James Harrington, Welsey Pillman, Christian Ford and Chad Tofteland (mechanical captain)
Marketing Team: Dillain Picray and Jaymin Lee
Mentors: Ken Jacobson, Doug Edson, Blair Hull, Kathy Messer, Derek Messer, Craig Simon, Justin Carlisle, and Ken Lussky

“He ran over the ball and that slowed us down. His arm was out of whack and with that malfunction we lost by two points,” Tofteland said.

Sparky stands at about three feet tall and weighs less than 120 pounds. He’s made of metal and is powered by pneumatics and electricity.

He’s completely hand-made, according to Tofteland.

“He’s designed, programmed, wired, built … all done by hand,” Tofteland said.

All 11 robotics team members were experts in engineering, computer programming, design, promotions, marketing and more, he said.

Sparky is one of an extended family of robots designed and built by AHS students.

“We’ve been to regionals every year since 2007, except 2009 when we didn’t go. We’ve never made it to nationals, though,” Tofteland said as teammates inventoried spare parts and Sparky rested wrapped in plastic inside the AHS IT room days before the March 30-31 regional competition.

In the months prior to regionals, Deus Ex Machina team members perfected Sparky, ensuring that he met competition criteria and that he was set to perform without hesitation.

Craig Simon, an engineer with Pentair, was one of the mentors for the project and Messer coached the team as well.

Sparky’s bridge-lowering mechanism is powered by a PG71 gear motor and is within the 14-inch regulations. He has a six-wheel drive train with pneumatic tires driven through a toughbox. His shooter is powered by two Banebots R5550 motors through CIM gearbox.

Sparky can cross bumps, maneuver over bridges, pick the basketball up off the ground, shoot and score.

“The rules say no hydraulics, no gas engines … Electrical is OK. Pneumatics OK – and it’s all made by hand,” Tofteland said.

Thanks to sponsorships and fund-raising, Deus Ex Machina paid the $5,000 entry fee for regional competition and received a kit of parts for the robot and an assignment: build a ‘bot that can shoot a basketball into a basketball net.

“We’ve put in about 100 man hours (designing and building Sparky) since we formed the team in October,” Tofteland said.

Rules state that robotics teams can work on their ‘bot for no more than six weeks and then “we can’t touch it until the competition.” Tofteland said.

Robotics teams from Iowa and Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Minnesota competed in the regional competition, staged at Williams Arena and at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

The prize for winning the regional competition was an automatic entry into the national competition in St. Louis next month. The national winner gets to sit down to dinner with the president of the United States.

“I’m sure there’s some kind of money awarded, too, and a trophy or something, but dinner with the president is the big thing,” Tofteland said.

“We’re not going to nationals, but we’ve never done this good before. The kids did great,” said Messer.

And Sparky’s mechanical team captain expressed the team’s gratitude to their machine, too.

“We’re really proud of our ‘bot,” Tofteland said.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com


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