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First Wyoming, then the world

Junior Garrett Hall (right) of Powell High School’s The Mad Hatters robotics team discusses the design of a new robotic arm with junior Brian Amdahl (left) and robotics teacher Judith LaPlante (center). The Mad Hatters will travel to St. Louis, Mo., to compete in the 2013 FTC World Championships April 24-27.  Junior Garrett Hall (right) of Powell High School’s The Mad Hatters robotics team discusses the design of a new robotic arm with junior Brian Amdahl (left) and robotics teacher Judith LaPlante (center). The Mad Hatters will travel to St. Louis, Mo., to compete in the 2013 FTC World Championships April 24-27. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

PHS Robotics to compete in St. Louis

For the second year in a row, Panther Robotics will test their metal against the world’s best.

The Powell High School robotics team known as The Mad Hatters will travel to St. Louis, Mo., to compete at the 2013 FTC World Championships April 24-27. Powell’s team will be one of only 128 teams from around the world to attend the competition, putting The Mad Hatters in the top 2.5 percent of all competitive FTC robotics teams.

The Mad Hatters won the Wyoming state championship March 16 in Casper, besting 27 other teams from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado New Mexico, Iowa and Mexico City, Mexico. The win qualified the team for its second world championship in as many years of existence.

Robotics coach Judith LaPlante said the Mad Hatters overcame a rough start to go undefeated in the qualifiers and claim the state title.

“The competitions always start out really rough where there’s a lot of flaws and hiccups to work out of your equipment,” LaPlante said. “No matter how much you think you’re prepared there’s always something you wish you would have checked out and tested before you got out into the field.”

The Mad Hatters, which consisted only of juniors Brian Amdahl and Garrett Hall, were still able to finish the state competition’s five qualifying rounds as the No. 1 seed, giving them first pick of a partner team for the final rounds.

LaPlante said The Mad Hatters played great defense at state but struggled to score, leading them to choose a partner capable of putting more points on the board.

Alongside the two teams from Sun River Valley, Mont., the Mad Hatters defeated the Tesla Coils of Jerome, Idaho in the finals.

Amdahl and Hall are the only two of The Mad Hatters’ seven members available to make the trip to St. Louis, opening the door for members of Powell’s other robotics team, Squiggle Splat Bang, to join them at Worlds.

Senior programmer Dallas Randall was chosen to be the team’s third and final member.

St. Louis, and the competition, will be entirely new experiences for Amdahl and Hall.

Amdahl had the opportunity to join Squiggle Splat Bang in St. Louis last year, but was unable due to a trip to Italy that kept him away from both his phone and school work. Amdahl said he missed the call inviting him to Worlds, and once he returned to Powell he decided that catching up on missed school work was in his best interest.

But now in the country and able to go, Amdahl said he’s looking forward to visiting a new city.

“I like to see the world and quite frankly I don’t get out much,” Amdahl said.

Randall is the only Panther from last year’s team that will be returning to St. Louis, giving him the ability to offer veteran leadership to his teammates.

“I’ve had the experience and I know what the stress and stuff looks like,” Randall said.

Randall said he will share advice with Amdahl and Hall as the competition nears, but the team’s focus is currently on the major redesign the robot is undergoing between the state competition and Worlds.

LaPlante said the robot’s suspect design made the team unsure if it would accept the invitation to Worlds.

“The whole point of the competition is to learn about engineering and to put it to practice. I just felt that The Mad Hatters robot didn’t meet the engineering bar that I wanted to see,” LaPlante said.

The team discussed at a March 19 meeting whether it could improve the robot’s design so that The Mad Hatters would truly be a Worlds-worthy competitor.

“If you don’t go and plan on doing well, then you should think hard about why you’re going,” LaPlante said.

The robot’s major engineering shortcoming was its arm, which has been redesigned and is currently being rebuilt. The robot’s claw-like hand was scrapped in favor of a “basket” mounted on a longer, lighter arm that can reach all three levels of rungs, where donut-sized plastic rings are placed to score points. The previous arm was able to reach only the lower two rungs.

“I think they’re going to do a lot better with the redesign,” LaPlante said.

Changing such a key element of the robot has added even more stress to a team already pressed for time.

“It’s stressful for me because the programming is a little different,” Randall said.

Fortunately for The Mad Hatters, Randall does not need to see the finished product, but only understand how the new arm will operate, in order to write the new programming code.

“I know what it’s going to be so I can have it programmed and ready (by the time the arm is done),” Randall said.

The team is hoping to finish the arm by next Tuesday, allowing for at least a week of driving practice before the trio leaves for St. Louis.

“That (practice) is very important,” Amdahl said. “I’ll probably be coming in during my lunches to practice driving.”

And though the final weeks of preparation have been a little manic, that’s to be expected for a group that identifies itself as “mad.”

Randall said the team is in better shape than Squiggle Splat Bang was at the same time last year.

“This year we know what to expect so I think it’s a little easier this time around,” he said. “I’m pretty confident.”

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