Photo of 3 students displaying their robots

Ohio Northern University’s robotic football team delivered decisive defeats to rivals Valparaiso and Notre Dame to become national champions this spring.

How did Polar Robotics achieve the conquest?

With a secret weapon: seniors George Rak, Aaron Smith, and Grant Brautigam.

For four years, these three mechanical engineering students worked with steadfast determination to elevate 鶹APP’s robot squad. They were joined by equally-dedicated teammates and guided by advisors Louis DiBerardino, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineer and Firas Hassan, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Victory—10-years after the last championship—was sweet, said Aaron.

“The moment we won it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. The work that we all put in the last few years finally came through. I was so happy and relieved that I almost shed a tear.”

All three joined Polar Robotics their first year on campus after developing an interest in building robots in high school.

At the time, 鶹APP’s team was floundering; and then COVID-19 hit, compounding the challenges.

“After Covid, we were left with a partially-completed fleet of robots, all of which needed significant amounts of work,” said George, who ended up becoming the Polar Robotics president for three years.

Grant added: “We had to decide which parts of the robots to keep and which parts to start redesigning. Also, we started with a blank slate for the robots’ code, as none of us had an understanding of how the previous code worked.”

After stepping into leadership roles, their first strategy was to split club members into three teams: build, design, and programming. They appointed a leader to oversee each team.

Keeping projects moving down the pipeline required some serious people skills.

“Nobody is the same as you and everyone has their own goals and ideas, so it’s important to know how to interact with people and how to apply them to areas that will generate the most value for the organization while also keeping them engaged and satisfied. Sometimes that can be hard to balance,” said George.

Methodically, the Polar Robotics team built and coded eight football-playing robots starting with the linemen and a quarterback and then adding a stellar running back. With each iteration, they focused on making the bots more robust, competitive, and user-friendly to maintain.

“We experimented so that if a part or an assembly needed to come off, it could without someone cursing under their breath or throwing the robot at the wall due to frustration,” said Aaron.

Success, they realized, could only be achieved through continuous improvement. After each competition, the entire Polar Robotics team would evaluate what went well and what went poorly, then create a list of modifications for the following academic year.

“So, after doing this for four years, we were able to improve our team, robots, and strategy going into this year’s competition,” added Aaron. “Learning from our mistakes and striving to improve was what made our team so successful this year.”

Grant added: “Over the years we made major improvements both with the design of the bots and the code. I foresee the improvements lasting many years in the future and hope new members will be able to quickly understand the changes we made and build upon it.”

This year, the team also adopted frequent driving practices to understand their robots’ weak points and to know when to advance. It all paid off on April 13 at the 2024 CRFC National Robotics Football Tournament hosted by Valparaiso University.

“We rolled up to the competition ready to go. We were all nervous to see if our bots would hold up,” said George. “We had never beaten Valpo in a competition before and they were our first fight to determine if we moved on to the championship. On top of that, 鶹APP had not taken home a championship win in 10 years. That paired with it being my last year on the team made the stakes and seriousness even higher.”

He tried to lighten the mood by doing the Macarena on the sidelines for some laughs, and while it helped, the atmosphere was still tense.

Finally, the match kicked off, and after the first few successful drives, the entire Polar Robotics squad knew it was going to be “a very good day.”

“By halftime I could tell we were not going to lose our momentum. Our bots held up and our drivers too. When the game ended and we saw the score of 79-34 we were incredibly surprised. We had gone into the game feeling it could be a 50/50 toss up as to which team would win, but this was so much better than that,” said George.

After rolling over Valparaiso, Polar Robotics clinched the championship with an 71-34 win over the University of Notre Dame.

“We kept our heads down and were able to take home the trophy,” said Aaron.

Four years of learning and working hard on Polar Robotics bore fruit for the three seniors, not just for the win, but for their future prospects.

“One important thing to note is that Polar Robotics gave me a lot of skills that made me very marketable,” said Grant.

He and Aaron both obtained engineering positions at Applied Manufacturing Technologies (AMT) in Orion, Michigan, and plan to room together. George has a job lined up at Parker Hannifin Hydraulic Valve Systems in Elyria, Ohio.

They are confident their Polar Robotics friendships will continue long after graduation. After all, they spent countless hours together not only building and coding robots, but talking, laughing, eating pizza, and playing spike ball and nerf gun wars.

The camaraderie, says George, remains his favorite aspect of Polar Robotics—topping even the national championship.

“I like robots, but the people make it fun!”