It was great to see the University of Minnesota in the “final four” last weekend — a robotics competition, not the NCAA Final Four.

“It was a great crowd,” said Laura Irvine, 20, a U mechanical engineering student from Woodbury and member of the four-person team. “Usually the spectators for robotics events are mainly made up of parents, siblings and other teams, so to see such a high turnout of the general public was amazing.” 

The Land O’Lakes-sponsored “Bot Shot,” at a packed DeLaSalle High School gym several blocks north of the Final Four festivities downtown, also fielded teams from Purdue, South Dakota State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

And there was celebrity. Former NBA star Christian Laettner, who won a Final Four championship with Duke in the Twin Cities in 1992 and played with the Minnesota Timberwolves, was on hand. He was joined by David Robinson, an engineer who graduated from the Naval Academy and 10-time NBA All-Star who won two titles with the San Antonio Spurs.

The stars were anything but robotic, mixing with competitors and the admission-free crowd during and after the two-hour event.

“This is inspiring to me,” said Robinson, who has donated millions to education causes. “Sport often brings people together and this event puts a spotlight on what these students are doing with robotics.”

Land O’Lakes awarded $10,000 to the winning squads from South Dakota State and Wisconsin, whose wheeled robots made the most shots from various spots around the court. It also contributed robotic kits to a Minneapolis inner-city robotics club.

Mike and Ray Lewis brought their three kids from Woodbury for the free event.

“We like to expose the kids to new ideas and activities and we hope they will be inspired,” said Mike Lewis. “Robots seem pretty good at playing ‘Jeopardy’ and chess, but not that good in basketball.”

He has a point. None of the robots on wheels with built-in launchers made a high percentage of shots, guided by computer calculations and electronic hand controls. But the audience went wild for any team that made a basket.

Robinson, 53, and Laettner, 49, outshot the “bots” in a casual shoot-around. And they are smoother.

“I just like to see how the robots worked,” said McKaylan Lewis, 10. “I also just like to meet new people.”

Land O’Lakes’ objective was to push the boundaries for robots. And the college teams.

“I would say this has been about 50-50 nerve-racking and fun,” Irvine said. “The nerve-racking part comes from only having a few shots to represent five months of work.”

The U squad shot well in the first half of the competition. The winners were selected from a second-half game of H-O-R-S-E.

The student teams signed up for the event last fall. They used computer-aided design and acquired parts and supplies to build the robots last December from AndyMark, maker of mechanical and electronic parts.

“Before the game of H-O-R-S-E we were feeling pretty good because we had dominated the skills challenge, which determined the order for H-O-R-S-E,” Irvine recalled. “After the competition we were a little disappointed due to not winning, but we were also happy for Wisconsin and SDSU. They worked just as hard as us to get there.

“We were also happy to have had the opportunity to compete. And now we have a cool robot that we can take to demonstrations. We also were also able to apply the things we are learning in school to a real-world application.”

Participants, including the former basketball stars and the crowd, had a great time.

“I wish I had brought my 13-year-old son,” Laettner lamented. “This was fun and creative. I was engaged.”

Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford was at the event, as were dozens of employees. Land O’Lakes declined to say how much it invested in Bot Shot. By all indications, it was a worthwhile venture.

In a statement, the company noted that basketball has changed over decades from “peach baskets and three-man weaves to spreadsheets and science.”

Similarly, technology, from advanced machinery to drones that help limit water use and chemical applications, has changed agriculture over the years.

Indeed, Land O’Lakes, a farm-to-store, farmer-owned cooperative that boasts $15 billion in sales, employs teams of data scientists, engineers, marketers and accountants. And Ford made the point to city folk that tech can deliver food as well as free throws.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.