Late in 2009, Luminary Micro, now part of Texas Instruments, announced the Jaguar motor-control module designed specifically for teams that build robots for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). This brushed DC-motor control module should help teams get off to a quick start during the six-week FRC build period. (www.luminarymicro.com/jaguar)
That news item made me wonder if the FRC had grown beyond the capabilities of students and their mentors who form the competitive teams. As I recall from the early ’90’s, teams got surplus DC motors and battery packs originally manufactured for portable hand tools. I can’t remember what type of overall controller, if any, the teams used.
FIRST stands for, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” which started in 1989 as an effort by inventor Dean Kaman to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Now, over 1700 teams participate in the competition, which involves more than robot-building skills and encompasses team building, finding sponsors, working with mentors, and public relations. Visit the FIRST Web site at: www.usfirst.org.
Teams compete in a FRC each year, but the type of challenge changes with each annual program.
To find out whether FIRST had grown too sophisticated for young people, I talked with Bill Miller, director of FIRST robotic competitions, and Chris Jennings, engineering project manager for the FRC program. They explained the expansion of the FIRST program and mentioned that FIRST now has over $12 million dollars in scholarships to award to students and teams.
Bill and Chris also explained that the sophistication of the students has grown and that many technically inclined high-school students can program in Java or C/C++. Instead of writing low-level bit-bashing motor-drive code, the students now can use code libraries and LabVIEW, for example, along with National Instruments’ CompactRIO controller and Luminary Micro’s motor module. And they can use programming tools from WindRiver.
The FIRST Robotics Competition represents the top competition, but younger students have opportunities to join a Junior FIRST LEGO League, move on to a FIRST LEGO League, or jump into a FIRST Tech Challenge group and gain some hands-on science and engineering experience before they go on to a larger FRC project
FIRST LEGO League participants test their robot design prior to a competition.
But–and it’s a big but–these competitions and experiences depend on adult mentors who can guide and assist students and teams. “We want to have new and exciting technologies not only for the teams but also for the mentors,” noted Miller. “We can attract more engineering and scientific mentors by incorporating new technologies and the actual hand-on commercial products used to run modern equipment.”
“A potential mentor can attend a local FIRST event and experience the energy, see the students’ robots, and talk with team mentors who are involved, excited, and inspired by what’s going on,” said Miller. “It’s a ‘contagious’ situation. I’ve talked with many engineers who have felt almost burned out and then they get revitalized by working with a FIRST team.”
You can learn about local programs, teams, and competitions at: www.usfirst.org/whatsgoingon.aspx. Even if you cannot act as a mentor, you might have a youngster who would like to join a team. Also, FIRST welcomes monetary donations and sponsors. Current sponsors include FedEx, Boeing, BAE Systems, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, General Dynamics, and Rockwell Collins.
My school district does not have a FIRST team, so I plan to start an informal “robotics working group” at a nearby middle school to gauge student and parent interest in an after-school program that would include basic electricity and electronics, programming, and robotics experiments. I’ll let you know how things work out. –Jon Titus
Photos by Adriana M. Groisman, courtesy of FIRST.