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FIRST Robotics Competition is Underway

FIRST Robotics Competition is Underway

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 set.

Lunacy 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 opponent's trailer.

"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 Congress Center. 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 through contributions.

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."

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