It's part soccer, part arcade game, part high-tech robot design.

It's the national robotics championship coming up April 15-17 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and the robot-building tekkies at St. Anthony Village High School plan to be there.

This year, the organizers decided they wanted soccer-playing robots. So the Atlanta competition, played out over three days, will bring together 340 robots trying to kick soccer balls into indoor goals -- or trying to prevent other robots from scoring.

St. Anthony Village's "Team 2574," known more casually as "RoboHuskie," got through the regional robotics championship in Milwaukee, earning a shot at the national title. The three-year-old team is made up of more than 30 students from all grade levels.

Not to be confused with geeks, the RoboHuskie kids consider their efforts "a sport of the mind."

To prove it, they can boast a mascot, and specially designed T-shirts and bandannas. And they can earn sports team-like patches for their letter jackets.

The national championship, organized by the Manchester, N.H.-based FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), winnows down 45,000 high-school robot-makers on 1,809 teams to about 7,000 students on 340 teams that will compete at the national championship. For many of the seniors on RoboHuskie, just participating in the national event is the capstone of their senior year.

"I feel connected to this team," said senior Dan Marino, who started on the team as a sophomore in its inaugural year. "It's been part of my high school experience. At first, I did it because some of my friends were doing it and the concept of it, building a robot, seemed really cool."

Now, he said, he's also drawn to the teamwork, the camaraderie and the decision-making that goes into the fabrication of a potential national champion robot.

Soccer's the task

Competitors started out with a kit of expensive parts and not much more, except for some electrical wiring instructions "that are provided so teams do not melt down thousands of dollars' worth of equipment," said faculty adviser and science teacher Paul Lulai.

Once they found out what this year's competition entailed, the teams had six weeks to build their robots. The rules gave them latitude as to what kind of robot they wanted to fashion. For instance, some teams went for defense, designing robots with high-traction wheels so they can block and push other robots. Others designed vacuums to suck the soccer balls toward their robots.

RoboHuskie is designed as a scoring robot: highly maneuverable and using an air-powered piston to trigger its kicking device. The 54-foot-by-27-foot soccer fields in the Georgia Dome will look more like obstacle courses, with bumps and tunnels that robots have to negotiate. Directly guiding the robots in the competition will be a driver, a co-pilot and a coach.

As per the contest rules, RoboHuskie's robot, dubbed "Alpha Huskie," already has been shipped to Atlanta.

RoboHuskie is far from the only Minnesota robotics team; there are about 80 in the state. Among the toughest in-state competitors, say the RoboHuskie kids, are teams from Edina and Prior Lake High Schools.

The competition will be broadcast on (of course) the NASA cable network.

Fundraising for the trip

One of RoboHuskie's challenges is raising money and getting the word out to the community so they can attract mentors -- businesspeople and engineers who can offer advice and direction.

Fundraising is especially daunting. The team had to raise $5,000 just to enter the national contest. Now the students must come up with $20,000 to get as many of them as possible to Atlanta.

They've raised about $5,000 of that amount. The team's principal sponsor, the Fridley-based Medtronic medical technology corporation, has announced that it will pick up the tab for the entry fee, and donated an additional $12,000 to the team last fall to cover additional costs.

RoboHuskie isn't all budding engineers. For instance, there's senior Emily Hugill, who will study orthopedic physical therapy at the University of Minnesota this fall, and has duties that don't directly involve designing and building robots.

"I help a lot with the fundraising and the outreach," said Hugill. "I'm also the mascot." That means dressing up in a dog costume to lead the cheers for "Alpha Huskie."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547