High school robotics teams from New Buffalo (the Bionic Bison) and River Valley (the River Valley Mustang Gearheads) are in a race against time to finish building their machines for upcoming “DESTINATION: DEEP SPACE” competitions by the Feb. 19 “bag day” deadline.

Members of both squads spent much of Saturday, Feb. 9, figuring out how to create robots that can achieve the challenges posed by this year’s FIRST Robotics game.

“Things are coming together. We’ve come up with a design of what they’re wanting to do and showing them what they need to do to pull it all together,” said Carole Ross, one of the Gearheads adult mentors working with team members at the high school on Feb. 9.

“Ten days to get it done. It’s going to be tight but I think we can do it,” Bionic Bison coach Robert Hauch said during a Feb. 9 building and testing session in the NBHS Media Center.

During “DESTINATION: DEEP SPACE” matches two competing alliances (three teams apiece) take on unpredictable terrain and sandstorms (in the form of a drop-down screen that blocks operator view for the first 15 seconds of each match) on a playing field representing “Planet Primus” (complete with three-level “rocket” towers being prepped for lift-off). With only two minutes and thirty seconds until liftoff, alliances must gather as many cargo pods (orange exercise balls) as possible and prepare their two rockets and one cargo ship (which include multiple places for hatch panels to be attached to keep those pods in place) for departure (in time for a return to the safe habitat area by the “Deep Space Travelers”) before the next sandstorm arrives.

During the FIRST Robotics kick-off event for Southwest Michigan held Jan. 5, in the Grand Upton Ballroom at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center, the new “River Valley Mustang Gearheads” (team number 7814) were described as “reboots” since a joint Bridgman-River Valley squad was active for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

New Buffalo’s Bionic Bison (team 5535) are in their fifth season of competition following a 2018 campaign that saw the squad achieve the milestone of qualifying for state.


Mike Jones, another Gearheads mentor (along with Jenny Jones, Paul Boughner and Ross) said that as of Saturday, Feb. 9, the base of the robot (consisting of a frame, six wheels and four motors) was in place.

“We’re pretty sure we will be able to place hatch panels, pick them up off the floor and place them on the lower levels of the cargo ship. And we’ll be able to retrieve them from the player station too,” he said.

There also are plans to pick up the cargo exercise balls and load them using an elevator system.

Students and mentors were working on an arm assembly for the Gearheads robot and on figuring out the layout for the control panel during the build session in a classroom at the school.

Students are on the team are Jacob Ashcraft, Elijah Witter, Arnica Sheaffer, Raven Sanford, Erica Horton, Parker Teneyck, Lillian Moore and Aubrey Arnold.

Boughner and student Aubrey Arnold were laying out components of the control system on Feb. 9 (“the nervous system and the brain” as he put it) that will be placed in the robot — a layout that needs to be situated to properly distribute weight.

The robot is controlled during competitions by a driver via a laptop. In the early “sandstorm” portion of the competition the Gearheads hope to use onboard cameras from the 2016 robot to view the playing field.

The Gearheads haven’t chosen their man driver yet.

 “We’re going to make them compete for that,” Boughner quipped.

The 2016 competition robot from the previous incarnation of the Gearheads (a joint River Valley-Bridgman squad) is still very much in one piece and being used as a model for this year’s build.

Jones said the Gearheads put in a long day of works on Saturdays and also work on the robot two nights a week (like most area teams the lost some build time because of the Polar Vortex deep freeze that cancelled school for a week).

Ross said everyone is excited to get ready for the first competition (at St. Joseph High School March 7-9) and see what it’s like.

Being rookies it’s real exciting ... We’re very excited to get there and see what everything is really going to be like — and see how we do,” she said.

The Gearheads mentor team is the Berrien Springs GreengineerZ, with the Average Joes from St. Joseph High School also lending an hand.


New Buffalo team members were in the Media Center on Feb. 9 putting a practice frame version of the 2019 robot through some of its paces (the “real” aluminum frame was being welded nearby by team members Colin Bendiner, Brenden Tanksley and Daniel Fairchild).

“This was our first year welding our own frame,” Hauch said. “In the past we’ve basically used the kit of Parts frame kit that bolts together.”

After the robot has been “bagged” on Feb. 19, Hauch said teams can have sessions totaling six hours to do more work the week before their first competition (the March 7-9 St. Joseph event). In addition, teams have the first day at tournaments to work on their machines in the pit areas before matches begin.

As of Feb. 9 still the Bionic Bison team was heavily involved in coding for the machine and prototyping how to deal with different stages of the competition such as how to pick up cargo (exercise balls) and the hatches that seal the cargo as well as what kind of lift system to install on the robot to place them on the three different levels of the “cargo ship” tower.

Sophomore Bodee Davis was working on a Limelight camera system designed to  the robot to move toward vision targets on the playing field

“Right now what we’re trying to do is … while we’re controlling (the robot) with the other controller, the co-driver would press a button and put it on autonomous mode, and it will automatically align (for loading tasks during the competition).”

The test frame machine was mobile and being put through some of its paces on a mock-up of the “DESTINATION: DEEP SPACE” playing field set up in the media center.

“Weight is definitely going to be our concern,” Hauch said, adding that early plans for a lift system and other components had to be changed because they seemed likely to push the machine over the 125-pound weight limit.

He said the last weigh-in showed the robot right around 115 pounds without the addition of an intake mechanism.

The 2019 Bionic Bison driver will be Daniel Fairchild with Colin Bendiner serving as co-driver (“because we’ve got so many buttons and stuff going on that we need two controllers.”) They also are team captains.

“Dan’s going to be driving the robot. When we want to pick up a ball or a hatch plate that’s what I do — I press a button and it does that,” Bendiner said.

Fairchild said the plan is to have preset heights for the lift system that will be initiated by different buttons on a panel the team is already working with

Hauch said Bailey Ferrell will be the “human player” during competitions (“loading hatch panels and cargo from the feeder station).

In addition to Hauch and 2018 NBHS grad Noah Sharum, the team’s mentors are Darrick Fairchild, Todd Tanksley, Linda Gifford, Grace Fowler and Tammy Hauch.

Students on the Bionic Bison roster include: Konstantin Bauer, Colin Bendiner, Daniel Bowen, Autumn Bukowski, Bodee Davis, Hagen Davis, Daniel Fairchild, Bailey Ferrell, Ashton Golebiewsk, Jacob Fidler, Chris Mejia, Zoe Price, Alexander Schmock, Ethan Moser, Jacob Smith, Brenden Tanksley, Joseph Turcotte and Andrick Villa.

The Bionic Bison are also scheduled to compete March 21-23 at Allendale while the Gearheads second FIRST competition is in Kentwood March 28-30.

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