Rise of the robots

EARLY – The 4-H clubs in Sac and Cherokee counties are trying something different in their robot program. Tuesday morning they held the area’s first ever robot tractor pull.

“We’re doing a lot of experimenting,” said organizer Steve Determan.

Determan is a 4-H leader and has taken a robotics team to the state fair. The idea behind the pull was to help younger kids get involved with simpler robots, he said, and grow interest in the program.

“Today is more about the engineering and less about programming,” said Carol Ehlers, 4-H youth field specialist.

All four teams ran into the same kind of problems, Determan said.

“Hitches will fall off. They’re finding different power settings. If you get it too low it doesn’t work,” he said.

But you can’t set the power too high either.

“If you use too much power it will just take off like a race car and not go anywhere,” said Hannah Fisher, 12, of Sac City. “It just has more speed. It doesn’t have enough traction.

“I had to make a lot of changes. I had the hitch on the back, but now it’s on the front so all the weight is on the drive wheels. I really can’t wait til we can use gears, because then I can probably put it at 100 (percent).”

Fisher found her robot spun its wheels and tipped its nose up instead of pulling. She went back to add more weight.

Weight, friction, traction, and power were the concepts the kids had to master.

Chase Hurd, 11, Nemaha, and his partner Logan Pickhinke, 9, of Early, found that when they weighed the bot down enough, they could bring their power back up to 100 percent.

They were the only team to make a full pull on the track.

Their robot was unique in another way too; it let out a weird laugh before it started up every time.

“My brother taught me how to do sound. It was my idea to do the ‘ha ha ha,'” Pickhinke said.

This was his first robot competition, though he said he’d learned how to program the Lego robots at the Sac County Fair last year.

His brother, Connor Pickhinke, 11, participated in the Western Iowa Robot Festival back in June in Pocahontas.

Austin Goettsch, 15, of Galva, was there to help out the younger experimenters. He added washers to their robots when they were struggling, to show how weight can help. Washers weren’t allowed for the competition, though, so the 4-Hers used extra motors, computer bricks, or battery packs for weight.

Goettsch said, “I like not having to work just with one robot. I get to help everybody out.”

And this kind of competition was right up his alley.

“I don’t like the programming type of thing. I like to build the robot,” he said.

After trying their luck with only four wheels and two motors, the kids got the chance to experiment more. Fisher made a sturdy bot with three motors and a lower gear ratio, while Pickhinke and Hurd added caterpillar tracks to their machine.

The event taught different skills than last month’s competition in Pocahontas, Ehlers said.

“Companies use robotics for lots of different needs,” she said. “This is more focused. At that one we had a wide diversity of challenges.

“I think half the kids here were at Pocahontas, and half were not. For half of them, this is all brand new, so they’re picking it up quick.”