More than 300 robots entered the ring April 12 to 14 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to compete in the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship. Robots in the Varsity Challenge were built and driven by high school students from every state in the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In addition, 1,000 middle-school students participated in the Nano Quest Lego League World Festival, where they designed, built, and programmed a Lego Mindstorms robot. The Vex Challenge World Championship, an intermediate robotic challenge, also drew 1,000 high school students.

The main attraction gave students a real feel for what it's like to be a scientist or engineer, says Bill Miller, director of the FIRST Robotics Competition. Beginning in September, students are guided by an adult mentor, such as a teacher, scientist or engineer.

At the beginning of the kick-off “build” season, teams are given a kit with hundreds of parts, including motors, wheels, pneumatic cylinders, control systems, latex tubing, batteries, and more. They are required to use the motors and control system in the kit, says FIRST staff engineer Kate Pilotte, but can switch out other components. They had six weeks to design and build their robots; some teams stuck with the assigned components, while others purchased different equipment or used equipment from sponsoring companies. The event attracts many motion control sponsors, including igus inc., Autodesk, Ringfeder, Bishop-Wisecarver, and more.

“Some robots were heavily pneumatic or motor-actuated robots,” Pilotte said. “Many used sensor technology; they really varied in their designs.”

That's why, Pilotte said, one robot will not win the competition. The teams must form alliances to win the competition. In the final rounds, the top-seeded teams picked their partners, sometimes aligning themselves with teams that may not have been a competitor otherwise. “The intent is that whoever your competitor is today could be your ally in the future,” Miller said.

Different technologies suited the project because of the task assigned to the robots, Pilotte said. The 100-to-120 lb robots were run by a 12-V power supply, and had to lift and place plastic tubes on rings above them. “A good alliance plays on the strengths of all three robots,” Pilotte said.

The competition begins with the robots operating autonomously by using a sensor and camera. These first 15 seconds test the teams' ability to program a robotic vision system for navigation. Afterwards, the teams operated the robots with a remote joystick.

The winning alliance included Team 177 Bobcat Robotics of South Windsor High School from South Windsor, Conn., Team 190 Gompei and the H.E.R.D. of Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science from Worcester, Mass., and Team 987 Highrollers of Cimarron-Memorial High School from Las Vegas.