Authored by:

Jessica Shapiro
Associate Editor
jessica.shapiro@penton.com

Key points:
• For the FIRST Robotics Competition, high schoolers design, build, and compete robots with an emphasis on teamwork, professionalism, and creativity.
• FIRST seeks to build interest in science, math, engineering, and technology among students of all grades.
• Corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations of robot parts help defray the high cost of fielding a team.

Resources:

AutomationDirect, www.automationdirect.com

FIRST, www.usfirst.org

Freelin-Wade, www.freelin-wade.com

igus, www.igus.com

Team 341: Miss Daisy, www.team341.com

Students hone their skills, rely on teammates, and compete in regional tournaments in hopes of making it to the national championship and getting noticed by top colleges. Sounds like a varsity sport, right? That’s exactly the vision Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur, and founder of FIRST, Manchester, N.H., had for the FIRST Robotics Competition when it started 19 years ago.

This year’s championship in Atlanta, April 15 to 17, was the culmination of a three-month season for more than 45,000 students from 12 countries. Starting in January, student teams designed and built robots that would compete both with and against other teams’ robots for top honors.

Kamen founded FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” in 1989 to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, and build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills. The FRC program combines the excitement of varsity sports with technology.

Students competing in FIRST events can win awards for design, team spirit, professionalism and maturity, and overcoming obstacles as well as for scoring the most points in competitions. Plus, over $12.2 million in college scholarships are available from over 136 sources to students who participate in FIRST.

Technical teamwork
The season kicks off six weeks before regional competitions begin with FRC teams learning about the season’s challenge simultaneously via satellite. There’s a newly developed game each year, but a carpeted field roughly the size of a basketball court and emphasis on cooperation among teams, creativity, professional courtesy, and safety are usually the norm.

Robot-design challenges go far beyond creating a vehicle that moves in response to radio control. These robots are equipped with sensors and other components professional engineers would recognize, including machine vision that must be programmed to recognize targets, accelerometers, gyroscopes, optical and magnetic encoders, and electric motors that need to be matched to gearboxes.

Robots must be able to operate autonomously for one segment of the game, and then switch to semiautonomous radio control. In addition, because organizers randomly assign three-team alliances that compete together, teams need to choose whether their robot should specialize in one point-scoring task or be multiskilled.

Alliances change from match to match in the initial competition stages, but top teams choose others to join their alliance going into the playoff rounds. A team with a specialist robot might look to join with teams whose robots round out its skill set.

In this year’s competition (see “Breakaway ‘bots’”), teams scored points by having robots send balls into goals. They could also earn points for getting their robots to elevate themselves above the playing surface at the end of the game.

Even for engineers who understand all the mechanical, electrical, and control concepts involved, building a robot from scratch in six weeks could be a tall order. Doing it with a team of high schoolers creates a “real pressure cooker,” says Alan Ostrow, who heads Miss Daisy, the team at Wissahickon High School, Ambler, Pa., that won the Chairman’s Award, FIRST’s highest honor, in April.

Some teams rely on adult engineers to design their robots and help the students build them. At Wissahickon, about 95% of game strategy, robot configuration, and robot assembly are up to student team members. Some 10 adults, half-of them college-age mentors who were previously on the team, tutor students in CAD and animation programs, machine-shop skills, Web-site development, programming, and robot architecture.

Starting small
Even with mentors, teams like Miss Daisy rely on returning students who already have experience with robots and the tools used to build them. Ostrow says students who have been designing and building robots through all four years of high school are as good as their professional mentors when it comes vetting proposed designs.

Like other varsity sports, FRC, which serves students in grades 9 through 12, has developed a system that gets younger players involved early and develops the skills needed to compete at the highest levels.

The FIRST Lego League (FLL), for fourth through eighth grades, has kids build robots using Lego MindStorm components to tackle simulations of real-world technology challenges, like biomedical engineering or environmental disasters. Students in kindergarten through third grade build models, research challenges that mirror those of FLL, and creatively present what they’ve learned in Junior FLL (JFLL).

Schools that have a strong interest in FRC competition often promote the formation of FLL and JFLL teams. One example comes from Georgia’s Forsyth County where nearly all the elementary schools now have an FLL team and where the high school offers a robotics-focused technical degree track.

The Forsyth County program started with a single FRC team requesting support from local company AutomationDirect (ADC) during the 2006-2007 season. In subsequent seasons, ADC went on to become a Gold sponsor of FIRST, supplying over $50,000 of parts each year. The company also supported the advocacy of FRC coaches to get robotics on school curricula.

Kit competition
But implementing robotics curricula is not cheap. Neither is fielding an FRC team. Teams competing at the highest levels need $45,000 to $125,000 per season, depending on whether students pay for their own travel to tournaments. Smaller teams get by with less, but the costs are still high.

An initial registration fee of $5,000 to $6,000 covers participation in one event and a kit of basic parts. Winners of the initial regional competitions spend $4,000 to register for a second regional, and those who continue to the championship pony up yet another $5,000.

Corporate and institutional sponsorships usually help defray some of the cost. Some teams, like Miss Daisy, also run off-season events that raise money and drum up interest in FIRST. The team’s Ramp Riot event draws 36 teams and over 2,500 spectators to a competition that mirrors that year’s FRC game, acts as a training event for rookie team members, and provides opportunities for teams to learn from each other.

FIRST also helps out with expenses by supplying teams with a large kit of parts, worth more than the $5,000 registration fee and donated by companies like Bishop Wisecarver, Festo, Monnier, Rockwell Automation, Gates, Bimba, Norgren, Axis, EnerSys, Andy Mark Inc., and Parker. ADC donates limit switches, terminal blocks, and pushbuttons.

igus, East Providence, R.I., supplies cable carriers, continuous-flex cables, plastic plain bearings, linear bearings and guides, and spherical bearings through its Young Engineers Support (YES) program. Team 2791, the robotics club at Shaker High School, Latham, N.Y., used igus’ igubal spherical bearings on its robot’s short-range kicker while competing in two tournaments.

“The igus part was critical to the success of the design and the robot as a whole,” says Aimesh Hajela, student vice president of Team 2791. Competition judges recognized the team for its unique efforts, performance, and dynamics.

Freelin-Wade, McMinnville, Oreg., recognized by FIRST as a Silver supplier, gave each team 50 ft of transparent, neon-yellow, Fre-Thane 95A polyurethane tubing and a coupon for 50% off custom orders. “This year was a big pneumatics year which translated to more teams using tubing in their robots,” says the company’s Ron Miller.

Teams also get hardware, batteries, motors, pneumatic components, actuators, servos, and sensing and control electronics and accessories. A Classmate PC lets teams interface with robots over radio frequencies, and professional-level software from companies like National Instruments, Autodesk, Altium, and PTC helps visualize, design, and program robots.

FIRST also runs the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), a midlevel robotics competition for high-school students that launched in 2005. The robotics kit and challenge are designed to be more accessible for teams that can’t afford the high overhead of FRC.

In this year’s FIRST Robotic Competition (FRC), robot and human players competed in a game dubbed Breakaway. In the game, two alliances of three teams each compete on a 27 × 54-ft field with bumps. Robots, which can’t exceed 120 lb when weighed without batteries or bumpers, start the game able to fit through the tunnels on the field with maximum dimensions of 28 × 38 × 60 in.

Teams earn a point for each soccer ball collected in their goals, two points for every robot that suspends itself from a tower at the end of the game, and three points for every robot that suspends itself from another hanging robot at the end of the game.

Robots start the game by attempting to score soccer balls in vision-ready targets autonomously for 15 sec. The robots may hold one ball at a time, but may herd or kick multiple balls along the floor. Human players return scored balls to midfield.

Following the autonomous period, human drivers use radio control to direct robots into scoring goals for 2 min. One robot for each alliance is permitted to play defense on the two goals.

In the final 20 sec of the game, the robots attempt to pull themselves up on the towers or other robots to score extra points. During this time, robots can extend to up to 7 ft in diameter and 90 in. in height.

Wanted: engineering mentors
One thing that’s clear in any conversation with FIRST devotees is the need for more mentors. Depending on the team, mentors might raise money, arrange group travel, help with robot design, supervise machine-shop operations, tutor students on software tools and technical topics, interact with the media, and act as chaperones.

“One of the things that led me from my engineering career into teaching and to FIRST was directly helping others,” says Alan Ostrow, head coach of Miss Daisy, the team from Wissahickon High School, Ambler, Pa., that won this year’s FIRST Chairman’s Award. “I love seeing the light bulb go on for the kids I work with.”

Helping kids find their way and get excited about math, science, and engineering is what has inspired Ostrow through the 11 years he has worked with Miss Daisy, and his story is not unique. “People really get hooked” on FIRST, he says.

Engineers interested in mentoring, should contact FIRST directly. Staff at the nonprofit can connect potential mentors with local teams who need them.

Starting in 2004, students and mentors for Miss Daisy created a DVD they call “Team in a Box” that guides rookie mentors through the phases of a FIRST season, addresses team organization and activities, and supplies robot-building tips. Support from AndyMark helps the team get the DVD out to those who request it. More information is available on Miss Daisy’s Web site, www.team341.com.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.