Conner Lawrence works on the Prickles’ robot in Anchorage. PHOTO BY EMILY DEACH

Skagway’s pair of FIRST LEGO League robotics teams recently traveled north to Anchorage to compete in the annual FFL Invitational on Jan. 17.

Teams Prickles and Lily Inc. had both come off of strong showings at the Juneau Jamboree; Prickles took the much-vied for Champions Award, and Lily Inc. was awarded the trophy for Top Robot Design.

Hopes were high that Anchorage results would also be stellar, but Prickles coaches Andy and Mindy Miller said their kids’ robot got temperamental the day before Prickles left for the invitational.

“We went into it feeling really confident, like we had everything prepared and practiced, we’d been rehearsing really well, the robot was performing so well before we left, except the night before we left…” Mindy Miller said

“…the color sensor stopped working,” Andy Miller finished. “So we deleted everything off the robot, put back all the programs on the robot and it worked fine – so we’re like okay, we’re set.”

Not so, however. Once Prickles arrived in Anchorage and went to run the robot for a warm-up, the issues returned. Another purge failed to fix the problem this time, so Prickles member Conner Lawrence performed a “brain transplant” on the robot, taking the small computer out and replacing it with a new one. Problems persisted, however, and the robot did not perform well in its first run of the invitational.

“The kids were a little deflated,” Mindy Miller said.

Subsequent fixes and another transplant couldn’t save the robot from another sub-par run, but Andy Miller said Lawrence was determined to problem solve.

“At this competition coaches are completely hands-off, we’re not even supposed to touch the robot,” Andy Miller said. “So it was a little hard to just sit back, but Conner really just [was like] ‘I’m fixing this, we’re going to get this.’”

The final run was Prickles’ best of the invitational, and was “pretty great,” the Millers said.

“It [Anchorage] was a little rough, because we went into it feeling so good after Juneau, but you know, the kids are such troopers,” Mindy Miller said.

“They never got down, they just rallied and went and cheered on the other teams and kept the energy up, which I was just really proud of them for that.”

The Prickles won the Teamwork Award for the Anchorage Invitational, which Mindy Miller said they’d earned.

The field of competition at Anchorage was a whopping 61 teams, while Juneau had just over 20, according to Mary Tidlow-Tranel, coach for Lily Inc.

Lily Inc.’s robot also struggled a bit at Anchorage; Olivia Tidlow-Tranel said a wheel on it was having trouble turning.

“And then Landon Rodig figured out that it wasn’t plugged in,” Olivia said. After a quick repair, Lily Inc.’s robot performed much better.

Lily Inc., made of only four students, had a complicated project focused around cleaning small bits of metal out of contaminated manufacturing water.

“The team scored 12th in the state, so that was good,” Mary Tidlow-Tranel said. “They were proud, they were excited.”