Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
At the FIRST Robotics Competition, teens learn about technology trade-offs, strategy and teamwork. NASA and major tech firms say the contest shapes tomorrow's tech leaders.
Robotics Rumble: Teens Fight For Tech Glory
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Thirteen years ago, Dan Richardson joined a FIRST high school robotics team not because he was a classic science and technology nerd but because he was tall. As a member of the basketball team at Westminster Academy in Ft. Lauderdale, he was recruited as a "human player" because the robotics enthusiasts needed someone tall enough to reach over a high barrier and drop balls onto the playing field as part of that year's robotics challenge.
"They told me it would mean I could miss school for two days and go to Disney," he recalled. He readily agreed, and found himself at a "technology rock concert" that changed his life, partly because the contest appealed to the same competitive instinct that made him enjoy sports. When he got more involved with the team as a junior, it was because "I was inspired to build better robots than anyone else," he said. "If it hadn't been for the competitive aspect, I don't think I would have been hooked."
The engineering challenge was hard work, "but I knew it was something where I could go pro," Richardson said. Meanwhile, it was dawning on him that his athletic talent for basketball and football might get him a scholarship but probably not a career.
Today, Richardson works as a mechanical engineer at Disney World, designing the next generation of animatronics. He served as an announcer this weekend at the 2013 South Florida FIRST Robotics Competition at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. This was one of dozens of qualifying events scheduled between February and early April, leading up to the championship scheduled for April 24-27 in St. Louis.
In this year's Ultimate Ascent challenge, robots competed in a sort of Ultimate Frisbee game, scoring points by tossing flying disks into goals at each end of a field 27 feet wide by 54 feet long. In the first 15-second phase of play, the robots had to be able to operate autonomously, scoring as many goals as possible without human intervention. The remainder of the game was played with the assistance of a driver and a manipulator operator (who controls everything but the maneuvering of the vehicle) piloting the robots across the field to be reloaded with additional flying disks to shoot into the goals. Finally, came the "ascent" part of the game, in which those robots with the wherewithal pulled themselves up a pyramid of pipes, like a robotic jungle gym, earning bonus points for every level climbed.
Competitors in the FIRST Robotics Competition get their machines ready to rumble.
As the game advances into the finals and semi-finals, the teams organize into larger alliances, and it's actually an alliance of three teams that wins. In the Fort Lauderdale competition, the victorious alliance included three Florida teams: S.P.A.M. of Stuart (the 2012 world champions), Exploding Bacon of Winter Park, and the Tech Tigers of Coconut Creek.
The challenge is different each year, so one year's winning robot would not necessarily do well in the following year's contest. When this year's challenge was announced in January, teams had six weeks of "build season" in which to go from initial sketches to CAD drawings, prototypes, final hardware and software and a complete working system. After six weeks, teams must observe a "hands off" policy except during a competition when a pit crew can make additional adjustments before the start of play and between rounds.
The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program started in 1992 as the brainchild of Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway, the versatile Independence robotic wheelchair, and other medical devices. His idea was to expose students to concrete engineering challenges, while having professional engineers encourage and mentor them. This year's FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) event for high school students has about 54,000 high-school-aged young people organized into 2,700 teams, with the support of about 16,000 mentors and adult advisors and 3,000 corporate sponsors. While FRC is the major event, the program has expanded over the years to also include the FTC (First Tech Challenge) program for grades 7-12, FLL (First Lego League) for grades 4-8, and Jr. FLL for grades K-3.
NASA is a major sponsor because of its interest in better robots for interplanetary exploration. Major aerospace and technology firms, including embedded systems software specialists, also provide support. Participating students also get a shot at the $16 million in scholarships being offered through FIRST this year.