Engineering for the Future

15 Mar, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

FIRST Robotics Competition challenges high school students in technology and life

In this newsletter in the past, I’ve voiced my concern about the state of high school education with regard to math, science and technology in general. Many high school students view careers in engineering as "intimidating" or "uninteresting." Further, many of these same students see engineering as too solitary an activity because they want human-level interactions. Last Saturday, I attended an event that confronts these problems head-on: the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The competition, this year celebrating its 15th anniversary, is the brainchild of its founder, Dean Kamen of Segway Human Transporter fame. I attended the 2006 FIRST Robotics Great Lakes Regional Competition, which brought in 63 teams from Michigan; Ohio; Missouri; Texas; and Ontario, Canada. This was one of 33 regional events taking place around the world over the next few weeks, in which more than 1,100 teams (more than 28,000 high school students) compete and qualify for the championship to be held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, in late April. The competitions aim to combine the practical application of science, technology and engineering principles with the fun, intense energy and excitement of an extreme sport.

The 2006 Game

Each year, the competition presents a new game, or task, to the participants. That game is developed by a committee, and based on what I witnessed at this competition, I’d say the process is quite involved.

This year’s game is called “Aim High,” played by two three-team alliances on a 54’ x 26’ field with robots that cannot exceed 60H” x 60W” x 60L” or weigh more than 120lb (less battery and removable bumpers). The object of this game is to use the robots to get a foam ball into a goal. It’s not as simple as it sounds, of course, with positioning and posturing the robots on offense and defense, creating a pretty involved game that got quite intense at times when robots gathered ramming speed and knocked over the opposition.

Student-built robots jockey for position at the 2006 FIRST Robotics Great Lakes Regional Competition. (Photo courtesy of David R.M. Stakor)

Each match totals 130 seconds and consists of one 10-second period where the robots, using vision sensors, act autonomously, followed by three periods of 40 seconds each, where the robots are run wirelessly by a human controller with a joystick.

Teams can score points two ways.

  • Robots and human players can throw or push the ball through one of two corner goals, each goal worth one point.
  • Robots can throw the ball through the center goal (the vertical hole), each goal worth three points.

At the end of the robots-only 10-second period, the alliance with the highest score earns 10 bonus points and goes on defense for the next 40-second period. When on defense, an alliance cannot score.

The alliances switch offensive and defensive roles for the third period. Then, in the final period, both alliances can score. As the end of the game nears, the robots rush to their home end zone and climb a ramp to a platform under their center goal, and additional points are awarded for the robots that made it to the platform before the final buzzer sounds.

As you can imagine, it all makes for some pretty exciting times.

A Level Playing Field

This year’s challenge was presented at kickoff meetings around the world in January, to ensure a perfectly level playing field for all.

Each team had six weeks to create its robot from a standard kit. Parts included motors, chassis, sensors, transmissions, vision cameras, bearings and other materials. Each team also received a multichannel radio-control system and a 12V battery. Strict rules governed use of additional items. Autodesk is a major sponsor of FIRST, so each team also received several copies of Inventor for designing in 3D.

The resulting robots came in all shapes and forms; amazingly, no two were even close to being the same design.

Robots were built with the same goal -- to win the 2006 FIRST Robotics Competition -- but the design similarities ended there. (Photo courtesy of David R.M. Stakor)

The mentors and sponsors who assist the students in building the robots do a great job and are to be applauded for their efforts. Most are practicing engineers or other technologists, and they instill a sense accomplishment in the students through direction and positive reinforcement.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is always seeking volunteers, on whom it depends for success, including companies providing financial sponsorship as well as individuals who serve as team mentors or event volunteers. Companies and engineers should seriously consider getting involved -- a move that is rewarding in itself but also can change the lives of student participants, not to mention support the future of the field of engineering. And it’s great fun.

Real Winners

I’m not going to say who actually won the Great Lakes Regional Competition, because winning is not the only object of the competition. A slew of awards honor not only winning, but also team spirit, sportsmanship, creativity, quality, innovation in control and engineering inspiration. A number of university scholarships are awarded as well.

I got to visit the “pit,” where the teams gathered to prepare their robots for upcoming rounds of competition. I was very impressed with the maturity and professionalism of all the students.

At the end of the day, I felt my time was well spent, and I felt inspired to get involved. I also came away with a better feeling about the future of engineering after seeing for myself the gracious professionalism, concern, support, responsibility, community and enthusiasm of all the participating students. For many, this event will act as a launching point into their futures.

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