The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC)
kicked off over the weekend and details of this contest, dubbed "Lunacy" to celebrate
the 40th anniversary of landing the first man on the moon, have been
requires this year's robots, which for the first time have restrictions on
weight and dimensions, to pick up "Orbit" balls designated as Moon Rocks, Empty
Cells and Super Cells. Each is to be deposited in a trailer hitched to their
opponent's robot in the allotted time, 2 min 15 sec. To add some
suspense and last-second heroics, teams can earn additional points in the last
20 sec of their match by placing a Super Cell special "orbit" ball in their
"The Super Cell is almost like a
Hail Mary type of pass and is worth 15 points," says Bill Miller, director of
FRC, now in its 18th year. Scoring with a Moon Rock is worth 2
points apiece. FIRST, which spelled out means "For Inspiration and Recognition
of Science and Technology" is the umbrella organization founded by engineer and
inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 that sponsors events encouraging, recognizing and
rewarding high school students for engineering accomplishments.
This year's lunar landing
theme given that NASA is a FIRST sponsor includes a low-friction playing
field (57 ft x 24 ft) surface and slippery robot wheels to minimize the advantage
veteran teams might have with drive trains.
"We wanted to simulate moonlike
conditions without breaking the bank. So if you a veteran focused on your drive
train, you have to think again. Everyone goes back to a level playing field," says Miller.
High school students numbering
42,000 from 11 countries form a record 1,686 teams which will participate in
the 2009 regional FRCs over the next three months. Between 80-90 percent of teams are
returning to the competition. This year, 300 teams are comprised of rookies.
The FRCs culminate in Atlanta April 16-18 in the finals at the Georgia World
An eight-person committee with representatives from MIT, NASA, The Coast Guard
and General Dynamics among others came up with the contest, which stresses
performance, cooperation and inclusion to minimize rookie teams operating at a
disadvantage, according to Miller.
The kickoff started Friday night
with a reception at Kamen's New Hampshire
home. That was followed
the next day at Southern New Hampshire
University by descriptions of the parts kits all teams receive, the game
field and the contest details. Now, the teams, aided by coaches and mentors, have
only their wits, creativity and determination to design and build their robots
over the next six weeks before the competition commences.
"This is engineering at a very high
level. The teams are morphing their robots as time goes on," says Miller. Each
robot must be no taller than 5 ft, no wider than 38 inches across and no
deeper than 28 inches. Weight has to be 150 lbs or less.
The registration cost per team is
$6,000, which largely goes to the
parts kits, which this year includes a CompactRIO controller from National
Instruments and free use of the company's LabView. At retail, the parts,
many donated, would go for between $10,000-$15,000. In all, each team including
transportation, lodging, food, robot enhancements and registration spends
between $9,000-$10,000, Miller says, adding the money is often raised
FIRST is intended to inspire high
school students to enroll in and graduate from engineering programs. The number
of engineers graduating from college has been declining for years.
"Our students can be their own economic stimulus
packages by leveraging their skills into self-sustaining careers and help with
the issues we face in the 21st century," FIRST advisor and MIT
professor emeritus of mechanical engineering Dr. Woodie Flowers said at the
kickoff. "In today's social environment, FIRST
has a chance to re-define the larger economic and moral playing field."