Past and future connect

POCAHONTAS – While for most attending the 29th annual Heritage Days in Pocahontas were a way to celebrate their community and reconnect with family and friends, the weekend of citywide entertainment provided the Pocahontas County 4-H Robotics Club with the chance for a public debut.

The first-ever Lego Mindstorm drag races were held Saturday afternoon, pitting computerized robot vehicles built by club members against one another in a timed event.

However, the challenge of the races reached beyond simple speed, said Luke Peterson, a summer intern with the Pocahontas Iowa State University Extension office and race official. The robots had to sense the start line, wait five seconds then propel themselves forward, staying within the lanes taped on the floor. Furthermore, they had to first sense then stop within the blue square marked at the finish line.

“This takes a lot of communication skills,” Peterson said. “You’ve got to talk to your robot in a way it can comprehend. It takes a lot of problem-solving skills and a lot of trial and error.”

The races were the first public competition organized by the robotics club. Held in the commons area of the Pocahontas Area High School, the event drew 30 spectators who gathered to watch the double elimination rounds once they had finished cheering the bed races held on Main Street and picked up the candy thrown during the annual parade.

Being scheduled as a Heritage Days event and supported by the Chamber of Commerce, which supplied plaques for the race winners, was a great way for the club to make itself known to the general public, Peterson said.

“One of the club’s goals is to get out into the community more,” he said. “They want to be more visible.”

Though in existence for only three years, the Pocahontas County Robotics Club is already a pretty active group, he said. They have competed in robot building and programming challenges at the Iowa State Fair and they host robotics mini-challenges that have drawn as many as 10 differing teams originating from clubs in Fort Dodge, Orange City and Sioux City, as well as from Sac County, Pocahontas County, and Calhoun County.

Five vehicles competed in time trials for Saturday’s race and ultimately went up against one another in head-to-head runs. Caleb Ekstrand, of Pocahontas, winning the drag races and taking first place. Second place went to Tanner and Trevor Frerk, also of Pocahontas, while Justin Crotty, of Fonda, finished third.

Cyrus March, 11, was one of the spectators who watched the vehicles zip down the taped lanes.

“I’ve always been fascinated with robotics,” he said.

March was one of the students attending the final day of the “Robots and Beyond” camp offered by the Iowa State University Extension & Outreach and 4-H Youth Program. During the week of classes topped off by the drag races, the participants learned about the history of robots, as well as the basics of how to design, construct and operate one.

“It was fun,” he said.

And while he was willing to give up time at the inflatables and playing a round Heritage Days cow pie bingo in exchange for learning about gears, mechanics, and simple computer programming, he wasn’t yet sold on a future career in robotics.

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug.