FIRST Robotics Competition is Underway

DN Staff

January 6, 2009

3 Min Read
FIRST Robotics Competition is Underway

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC)kicked off over the weekend and details of this contest, dubbed "Lunacy" to celebratethe 40th anniversary of landing the first man on the moon, have beenset.

Lunacyrequires this year's robots, which for the first time have restrictions onweight and dimensions, to pick up "Orbit" balls designated as Moon Rocks, EmptyCells and Super Cells. Each is to be deposited in a trailer hitched to theiropponent's robot in the allotted time, 2 min 15 sec. To add somesuspense and last-second heroics, teams can earn additional points in the last20 sec of their match by placing a Super Cell special "orbit" ball in theiropponent's trailer.

"The Super Cell is almost like aHail Mary type of pass and is worth 15 points," says Bill Miller, director ofFRC, now in its 18th year. Scoring with a Moon Rock is worth 2points apiece. FIRST, which spelled out means "For Inspiration and Recognitionof Science and Technology" is the umbrella organization founded by engineer andinventor Dean Kamen in 1989 that sponsors events encouraging, recognizing andrewarding high school students for engineering accomplishments.

This year's lunar landingtheme given that NASA is a FIRST sponsor includes a low-friction playingfield (57 ft x 24 ft) surface and slippery robot wheels to minimize the advantageveteran teams might have with drive trains.

"We wanted to simulate moonlikeconditions without breaking the bank. So if you a veteran focused on your drivetrain, you have to think again. Everyone goes back to a level playing field," says Miller.

High school students numbering42,000 from 11 countries form a record 1,686 teams which will participate inthe 2009 regional FRCs over the next three months. Between 80-90 percent of teams arereturning 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 Guardand General Dynamics among others came up with the contest, which stressesperformance, cooperation and inclusion to minimize rookie teams operating at adisadvantage, according to Miller. 

The kickoff started Friday nightwith a reception at Kamen's New Hampshirehome. That was followedthe next day at Southern New HampshireUniversity by descriptions of the parts kits all teams receive, the gamefield and the contest details. Now, the teams, aided by coaches and mentors, haveonly their wits, creativity and determination to design and build their robotsover the next six weeks before the competition commences.

"This is engineering at a very highlevel. The teams are morphing their robots as time goes on," says Miller. Eachrobot must be no taller than 5 ft, no wider than 38 inches across and nodeeper than 28 inches. Weight has to be 150 lbs or less.

The registration cost per team is$6,000, which largely goes to theparts kits, which this year includes a CompactRIO controller from NationalInstruments 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 includingtransportation, lodging, food, robot enhancements and registration spendsbetween $9,000-$10,000, Miller says, adding the money is often raisedthrough contributions.

FIRST is intended to inspire highschool students to enroll in and graduate from engineering programs. The numberof engineers graduating from college has been declining for years.

"Our students can be their own economic stimuluspackages by leveraging their skills into self-sustaining careers and help withthe issues we face in the 21st century," FIRST advisor and MITprofessor emeritus of mechanical engineering Dr. Woodie Flowers said at thekickoff. "In today's social environment, FIRSThas a chance to re-define the larger economic and moral playing field."

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