Duluth Daredevils prepare for robotics competition

Last year, Archie the robot carried the Duluth East Daredevils to the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. The Daredevils hope that Archie’s “little sister” Allie-Hoop will take them there again. After a 6-week building season that began in January, the robot is ready to compete at the FIRST Lake Superior Regional on March 8-10.

The event begins on Thursday with practice rounds and pits are open to the public, but Saturday’s elimination rounds contain most of the excitement.

“(March) 10 is amazing!” said team captain Kirsi Kuutti, a junior at Duluth East. This is her third year on the team.


The Daredevils look more like an engineering firm than a competitive high school team. The team is divided into a handful of departments: marketing, strategy, electronics, build, and programming.

“I’m kind of the bridge between the different departments,” Kuutti said. She also acts as a spokesperson for the team.

The FIRST Robotics Competition game varies from year to year. This year’s game is Rebound Rumble.

Allie-Hoop shoots the ball using a system of two flywheels mounted on a turret. By setting the wheels to spin at different speeds, they can apply backspin when they launch the ball. A ball bouncing off the rim with backspin is more likely to drop back down through the net.

A box outlined on the backboard with special reflective tape helps Allie-Hoop recognize its target. LED lights surrounding a camera on the robot shine toward the backboard. The tape on the backboard doesn’t absorb light like most materials and reflects light emitted from the LEDs back towards the camera. Allie-Hoop uses this data to calculate how it needs to shoot the next ball.

A lot of the programming came from the mind of Junior Christine Karas.

“She has put together the most complex program this team has ever programmed,” said Coach Tim Velner.

She’s still working out a couple of kinks before the competition. “It’s not a problem, just something we haven’t solved yet,” she mutters to her teammates.

Programming a robot to shoot a ball is no easy thing. Karas has had to learn calculus in order to make an effective program. She’d like to be a computer scientist someday.

“Before I joined this team, I never would have thought about that,” Karas said.

The team practices using models of the hoop and backboard that will be at the competition. They were built precisely so that they could calibrate their robot accurately. Team members even perfect how they inbound basketballs to get them to Allie-Hoop quickly.

Some departments work in the computer lab, others, such as the build and electronics teams, work in the fabrication room.

Everyone is dependent on each other, and there is a feeling of genuine understanding between departments.

“We’re all a family,” Karas said.

They have an annual budget of $30,000. They raise this money through grants, selling light bulbs and shirts to fans, sponsorships, and public presentations. A lot of money comes in through small checks collected during public presentations.


Most of Allie-Hoop was fabricated at Archer Racing, but that may someday change.

“We’d like to fabricate it all here,” Velner said.

The team often worked until 8 or 9 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday during the build season. Meals were brought in by parents for the whole team.

“Parents are a big part of it,” Velner said.

Students involved in the program have gone on to do a lot of different things. Former students have gone into aviation, digital design, and even music at Yale.

And it’s no wonder that such talent comes out of the program, as Velner puts it, “It’s the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Check back Saturday for updates from the competition.


Theme for the week: Picture This

Local Duluth artist finds place for her work at Washington Gallery

Duluth's signs reflect the changing image of the city