FIRST, www.usfirst.org

Speedy full-size robots, minibots, shaped tubes, and stainless-steel poles will all play a part in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). In a kickoff broadcast to the approximately 2,100 participating teams, robot-building high schoolers learned the details of the competition, dubbed Logomotion, that will form the 20th season of FIRST.

Teams will build their robots from a parts kit — much of it donated by sponsors — and program their creations for both remote and autonomous operation. Next comes practicing competition skills until local events start in March. Tournaments lead up to the championship, April 27-30 in St. Louis.

As in past years, the game pits two three-team alliances against each other on a rectangular field. Play is divided into an autonomous period when robots operate based on programming and sensor input, a teleoperated period during which they’re controlled by human players, and a scoring finale.

During the 15-sec autonomous period, robots hang yellow doughnut-shaped “ubertubes” on a grid of 18 scoring pegs in the safe zone at the near end of the field. The tubes score two, four, or six points for placement on the lowest, middle, and highest rungs, respectively. They also receive double points for game elements scored on the same pegs later in the game.

Both optical cameras and line-tracking sensors are included in the parts kit to help robots find the pegs. Line tracking is widely used in industrial robots and has been a staple of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) — competition series for younger students that often develop talent for FRC — for several years. FIRST hopes that standardizing technology will encourage more cohesion and mentoring.

After robots compete autonomously, student operators will guide their robots through the 2-min teleoperated period. Robots will pick up game elements from the far end of the field and hand them to other robots or place them on the scoring pegs. Game elements score three points on the highest rungs, two points in the middle, and one point on the lowest level. Robots can reposition elements from lower tiers onto higher pegs to score more points.

Game elements echo the circle, square, and triangle that appear in the FIRST logo and honor the 20th anniversary and Dean Kamen’s father Jack, who designed the logo. Placing the elements in the order in which they appear in the logo — triangle-circle-square — earns double points.

Bill Miller, director of FRC says, “We’re going to see a lot of fast-paced bumper-to-bumper action this year because the field is open and we’ve given teams very fast drivetrains.” Miller predicted top speeds of 12 m/sec and said all robots must have bumpers.

The finale is when the minibots will come into play. In the last 10 sec, large robots will cross two-thirds of the field and approach 1.5-in.-diameter, 12-ft-tall stainless-steel poles and launch minibots to climb the poles. The FIRST minibot to reach the top will score 30 points, a potentially game changing amount. The second, third, and fourth minibots to reach the top will score 20, 15, and 10 points, respectively.

The addition of minibots is another way to increase collaboration between FRC and FTC teams. Minibots can be made from the parts kits issued to FTC teams, or an FRC team can choose to partner with an FTC team offering an already-built minibot for competition.

This season will also see the debut of the FIRST Choice program. The program will let teams visit a Web site and request additional robot parts from items available on a FIRST-come, FIRST-served basis. Parts are donated by sponsors, but teams pay for shipping.

FIRST hopes the pilot is the initial step in more-efficient part distribution that will get teams only what they need and encourage them to recycle parts from year to year. It should also let more supplier-sponsors get involved. If some parts are offered in limited quantities, companies don’t have to come up with donated parts to supply all 2,100 teams.

Eventually, teams may have a budget of FIRST currency that would let them buy what they need. That approach would require teams to quickly decide on a robot architecture and determine which parts they need, including comparing competitive products.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.