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MU Engineering gives aid to Army Ants

A square robot attempts to go through a wooden obstacle.

This year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) theme, “FIRST Stronghold,” was announced on January 9, and 3,000 teams from around the world set to work to build, program and make their robots competition-ready in the allotted time of six weeks.

Kevin Gillis started out as a volunteer mentor with the Army Ants in 2011, when his oldest son was a member of Columbia’s FIRST robotics team. At the time, the team was operated by the Columbia Career Center, but last year, the Ants became an independent 4H-affiliated organization. Gillis, a University of Missouri professor of bioengineering, became their coach and chief mentor, and the Agricultural Engineering Building on the MU campus became the team’s base of operation.

This year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) theme, “FIRST Stronghold,” was announced on January 9, and 3,000 teams from around the world set to work to build, program and make their robots competition-ready in the allotted time of six weeks.

Kevin Gillis, a University of Missouri professor of bioengineering and team mentor, speaks to Army Ants members Dalton Phillips and Morgan Kruse

Kevin Gillis, a University of Missouri professor of bioengineering and team mentor, speaks to Army Ants members Dalton Phillips and Morgan Kruse.

“It’s not as simple as let’s put some motors together and drive it around,” Gillis said. “Programming is essential.”

Gillis stressed that team members make all of the design decisions, but the team has a variety of mentors who work with them. MU’s chapter of engineering fraternity Sigma Phi Delta is a team sponsor, and some of its members serve as mentors, as do some past participants and others such as Andy Winslow, a LabVIEW programmer.

“I think it helps me professionally,” said Gillis of his role as the Army Ants’ coach. “I have to keep up with the latest instrumentation and technology. It’s incredibly sophisticated — image processing, sensors, gyroscopes.”

Hayden Elder, a senior at Battle High School serves as the team’s head mechanic. “Last year was a learning experience and this year, I feel really good about our robot,” he said. “We had a design in a week and we’ve had enough time to test and finesse it.”

Elder explained that in this year’s competition, there are three teams in each alliance and teams can earn points individually and as an alliance. In order to traverse “defenses” chosen by the other team before crossing the court, the team built the robot with tank treads. The robot must shoot 10-inch balls in one of two goals, one at three feet and one at five feet, identified by the robot using vision processing.

Paul Gillis, Kevin’s middle son, a senior at Rock Bridge High School, and Adam Eaton, a senior at Rock Bridge, serve as the team’s head programmers.

Adam Eaton, Hayden Elder and Paul Gillis share a laugh from behind their computer monitors as their robot sits in the foreground.

Head Army Ants mechanic Hayden Elder, a senior at Battle High School, is flanked by the team’s head programmers, Adam Eaton, at left and Paul Gillis, at right, both seniors at Rock Bridge High School.

“There are 12 other programmers, but only Paul and I are working on the vision processing,” Eaton said. “I’ve been writing my own [computer resource] libraries. It makes a big difference.”

Morgan Kruse and Camille Kudrna, a junior and a sophomore from Rock Bridge, respectively, both heard others talking about the team and decided to try it for themselves. Both like the mechanical aspect of the robotic team. Kruse has been on the team for three years and said this year she worked on the worm gear and flywheels. Kudrna, in her first year with the team, said she helped put the bot together.

“A core group does each thing and we all work in parallel,” said Elder. “Kids who know what they’re doing do it best.

“Everyone is a marketer,” he added. The team is responsible for getting sponsorships and donations in order to fund the building of the robot and to pay competition entry fees.

All agree that the move to the Ag Engineering Building has been helpful, not only because they have more room, but also because of the proximity of equipment that allows them to “cut through anything and basically, make anything.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, the Army Ants sealed their finished robot in a tagged plastic bag and can’t touch it until they attend the competition March 10-12 in St. Louis.

And all agree: This year they have a better chance than ever.