St. Peter’s Nordic Storm high school robotics team is ascending to new heights this year, making waves with an impressive climbing robot that has already won the team an Excellence in Engineering Award and is due to compete for a second time on March 28.

Nordic Storm coach Deb Johnson said that the St. Peter-based team is one of only a few that entered this year’s competition with a robot capable of climbing.

“They wanted to do something hard,” Johnson said. “From the beginning their strategy has been to climb.”

The Nordic Storm team competes annually in the FIRST Robotic Competition. Following a six-week “build season” during which it designs and builds a robot essentially from scratch, the team participates in as many tournaments it can afford.

Registration for each tournament is $5,000, Johnson said. The team requires about $20,000 a year to function and relies upon donations from local businesses, either in the form of grants, materials or labor.

This year the competition is Ultimate Ascent and is played by two competing alliances on a flat, 27 x 54 foot field. Each alliance consists of three robots manned by three different teams. They compete to get as many discs into their goals as they can during a 2-minute and 15-second match. While some of the robots focus on scoring, others work as defense.

The match begins with a 15-second Autonomous Period in which robots operate independently. Discs scored during this period are worth additional points. For the remainder of the match, drivers control robots and try to maximize their alliance score by scoring as many goals as possible.

The match ends with robots attempting to climb up pyramids located near the middle of the field. Each robot earns points based on how high it climbs.

During the March 9 Lake Superior Regional tournament, the Nordic Storm team discovered that its robot had a weakness.

“We found at the tournament we were a little top heavy and they could easily tip us over,” Johnson said. “We’re working on fixing that before our next tournament.”

But there’s a catch. The team isn’t allowed to work on the robot between competitions. It must remain in a plastic bag until March 28. The team must work on a practice robot instead and make any changes to the other robot on the day of the tournament.

“We were lucky we could afford to build a practice robot this year,” Johnson said. “It allows us to make improvements in between.”

The robot is designed specifically for the competition and students are required to follow certain guidelines and use certain materials.

“As we’re designing and building our robot it’s for a different challenge every year,” Zac Szewczyk said. “We have to operate within certain constraints. This year for example we have an 84-inch height limit and we have to fit our entire robot in a 54-inch cylinder.”

In addition to designing and constructing the robot, the students must program it to perform both simple and complex tasks.

“The programming language that we use is Java and we store our Java programming in a depository called Bitbucket … basically what we do is we program the robot to do all these tasks during the competition and we use the driver station which has a couple of joysticks attached to it to control the robot,” Andrew Bethke said.

Another aspect of the competition is being able to spread word about FIRST Robotic and encouraging other local teams to get involved. The Nordic Storm team, which allows other area teams to use its practice arena, located in the basement of Gustavus Adolphus College’s Beck Academic Hall, and hosts practice sessions is hoping St. Peter will come to be seen as a rural Southern Minnesotan FIRST Robotics hub.

The team also hopes its outreach efforts will win it recognition in the form of the Chairman’s Award. According to Joshua Balbach, a member of the team’s Chairman’s Award Committee, said winning the award could secure the team a spot at nationals.

St. Peter also has two other robotic teams, the FIRST LEGO League team for students in grades four through eight and the FIRST Tech Challenge Team for student in grades seven through 12.

“[There is] FIRST LEGO League which is a little Lego robot that you program autonomously to go out and do missions on a board,” Gretchen Niederriter. “And then there’s also the First Tech Challenge team which is a bigger robot that you have a little bit of autonomous part and you can drive around yourself.”

Nordic Storm will compete in the 10,000 Lakes Regional on March 29-30 in Minneapolis. The tournament will be held at the Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus. All FIRST Robotics Competition regional tournaments are free and open to the public. Opening ceremonies take place on March 29 and March 30 at 8:30-9 a.m. and the competition end with an award ceremony at 4:30 p.m.

The team hopes that it will score high during next week’s competition and that the robot will be able to make it closer to the top of the pyramid and score more points.

“Currently we can only get a 20 point climb because our robot hangs too low,” Carl-Eric Young said. “We’re currently working on fixing that.”

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at

507-931-8568 or follow her on @sphjessicabies

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on @sphjessicabies

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