By James Sprague

Dexter’s FIRST Robotics team # 3656, the Dreadbots, started out the 2019 competition season with a bang, qualifying 4thof 40 teams competing at Belleville High School March 8-9, and winning the overall event with a decisive 6-0-0 record in Finals competition.  The Dexter team is on a roll, having now won outright the last two regional events in which they’ve been entered, plus the Kettering Kickoff pre-season event late last year.

Coming on the heels of their 2018 Lakeview District win, this most recent victory bodes well for the Dreadbots making another run at post season competition.  The state championships are to be held at Grand Valley State University, and the 2019 World Championships will be in Detroit this year.

Dreadbot drive team members: Spencer McMichael, Christian Vaughan, Drive Coach Dr. Darren DeZeeuw, Andrew Merriman, Abbie Van Noord. Photo provided by the Dreadbots.

Despite rocky practice sessions, Dexter’s 2019 drive team and robot (the Mark IX) performed solidly throughout the event, a satisfying outcome given the team’s emphasis on robustness and reliability in mechanical, electrical and programming aspects during the frenzied 6-week build season.  Autonomous code (used when the robot elevates itself on gear-driven stilts and drives itself onto an end-game platform) and remote operation (when the team members drive the robot) both consistently delivered top performance. 

This year’s game is titled “Deep Space” and is built around a theme of space exploration.  (Games change every year, and new robots must be purpose built.) Numerous corporate sponsors, including Rockwell Automation and the Boeing Company, have partnered with FIRST for this year’s competition. Alliances of robots must load and secure cargo to rockets, navigate a “sandstorm” without direct human vision, and climb platforms to score.  Robots from the opposing alliance are free to play defense to prevent scoring by their opponents, and the game can get rough.  It is not uncommon for the playing field to be littered with broken robot parts following a match, though officials are present to penalize flagrant fouls.  The 125-pound robots are quite powerful, fast and maneuverable.  Many robots have innovative capabilities, manipulators and surprising ways of accomplishing tasks.

Mechanical Sub-Team Captain, Spencer McMichael preparing to apply percussive therapy to the Dreadbot Mark IX after an especially bruising match. Photo credit – Shari Lindskov

Dexter’s Mark IX robot features a fully student welded steel frame, which withstood the on-field violence and several instances of overturning without significant damage. The drive train permits the Mark IX to drive forward and backward, as well as to pivot in place, and crab sideways, all useful features when precision and maneuverability is important. A unique custom manipulator consisting of miniature airspring actuators (generously donated by Firestone Industrial Products) married to small, yet powerful suction cup type dent pullers (used in auto body shops) allows polycarbonate game pieces to be retrieved and placed with accuracy.  Finally, an automated control system drives rack and pinion stilts, permitting the robot to jack itself up to a height sufficient to climb onto the end game podium.

The Dreadbots competed with 39 other determined teams to earn a 9-3-0 record in qualifying matches and earned the right to captain the 4th seeded alliance for finals competition. FIRST Robotics matches are played between two alliances, each consisting of three robot teams.  The Dreadbots ceded their alliance captaincy in order to combine forces with the 2ndranked team, Code Red Robotics (5567) from Milan and the MC Hammers (7656) from Michigan Center, for the finals.  This powerful trio rolled to a hard-fought but decisive tournament victory with 6 straight wins in the elimination rounds.  Dexter’s final opponent was a great alliance consisting of 3 local teams (Pioneer High School -#1076, Livonia Public Schools -#6861, and Washtenaw Technical Middle College – #6101). This opposing alliance made good use of some heroic late stage re-engineering by Pioneer’s students, which allowed their alliance to shockingly upset the first ranked alliance prior to facing Dexter.  But despite a lot of heart, they couldn’t quite overcome Dexter’s alliance.

In addition to bringing home gold medals for winning the overall event, the Dreadbots scored the highly coveted Entrepreneurship Award due to the impressive submission by Grant Wagner, the Dreadbot’s Business Team Leader.  This is the first time that the team has won this award in its nine-year history.

 The Belleville victory leaves the Dreadbots ranked at #15 of the 549 teams registered to compete in Michigan this year.  The 2ndregional competition for the Dreadbots will be at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti on March 21-23.

The award-winning Dexter High School Dreadbots Robotics team (FIRST Robotics Team # 3656), now starting its 9thseason, has qualified 6 times for the state championship, 5 times for the world championship, and boasts a large (and growing) roster of team alumni having earned college scholarships through FIRST. The Dreadbots currently have approximately 45 student members serving in capacities ranging from mechanical design and programming, to marketing and business.  Queries should be directed to

The Dexter Dreadbots would like to thank their sponsors, including Michigan Aerospace, Springmatter, QED Environmental Systems, Bosch, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, Ford, FCA Foundation, Michigan Department of Education and the Dexter Lions Club.

Want to attend a competition?  All FIRST Robotics events are free and family friendly.  Look for the Dreadbots’ maroon shirts in the stands and one of the student team members will be delighted to introduce you to their robot, give you a tour and explain it all to you.  Please visit www.firstinmichigan.orgfor more information about robotics competition and STEM education in Michigan.

For more information on the Dreadbots, visit their website at