Wednesday, March 7, 2012

FIRST: A Day at the Kansas City Robotics Competition

Claire (aka: gingercat) loves showing off her swag.  This is the collection from an hour and a half in the pit area.  Teams swap and give goodies away.

One of the best things about FIRST is that competitions and the pit areas are free and open to the public.  As long as you are wearing safety glasses, you can wander around and talk to the teams about their robot designs.  The kids love to show off their bots.

A slice of life in the pits.

Tech inspection.  Robots are checked for weight and regulation equipment.
Before I go any further, I have to recommend my Spousal Unit's blog on the subject at
She is not a techie and will approach this from a different perspective.

Moving on...

The work doesn't stop with building robots.  Each assembly and sub assembly must be documented with CAD software.   The team has to build a website and create promotional materials.  Some of the teams go all out doing community outreach programs as well as promoting STEM to girls.  The latter is important given the number of engineers and designers we need to have this be a country of makers.

OK, that's enough of the semi-political advocacy for my girls.  Now we are ready to rumble!

You might want to watch the overview video at FIRST Rebound Rumble Animation on Youtube

A FIRST round always starts with an autonomous task with plenty of points to be grabbed.  The robots are programmed and loaded with sensors.  This year, they had to navigate into position and shoots baskets without hairless ape intervention (except for the little used Kinnect option).

The real action starts during the driver phase.  Each robot typically has two drivers and someone watching the clock and the field.  Microsoft donated Kinect systems to FIRST this year.  One of the regional teams opted to use one for hybrid control of the robot during the autonomous phase.

The parts kit includes the same batteries, PLC and I/O system.  Some of the motors are standardized as well.  There is a weight limit and a parts cost limit of $3,500.

This was a unique design and was foolproof as long as no opposing robot ran bumping interference.  That is legal in certain zones in the field.

Here is the amazing thing:  Each team started with the same box of parts, rules and specifications to create a practice field.  From there, design diverges as each team prototypes and builds their robots in six weeks.  They then crate the bot and ship it.

Of course they don't do this alone.  There are teachers, sponsors and mentors.  We talked to one team mentor who mentioned that their school is just outside the gates to the Fermilab.  Yeah, that Fermilab; the one with the particle accelerator.

There were a few catapults and many driven wheel shooters.  Some had turrets that could be rotated as needed.  We saw many different ball grabbing designs.

On top of all the other engineering challenges, the balls were made of Nerf like material that degraded throughout the competition.  Hardness, texture and friction changed as they went along.

Can you believe that every one of these machines was designed and built by high schools students in six weeks?  Bear in mind that almost all of these kids are in AP heavy programs.  It's fair to say that the bell curve is skewed two or three standard deviations in the arena.

Engineering is serious work, but so is Gracious Professionalism.  Teams cooperate.  They share parts in the pits.  The kids spent six very long weeks building their bots and then live in the pits for almost three days.   They are competing for the same scholarship dollars.  For the most part, they are loving every minute of it.

More about Gracious Professionalism and its partner, Coopertition are found on the FIRST website at

While the goal is to bring up the next generation of engineers, the teams are still in it to win.  This year there were two teams that absolutely dominated the field.  Here they are in a four minute pit stop between the semi-final and the final round.  That's just enough time to swap batteries and check all of the electrical connections.

Terror had two names this year.  Introducing the Bomb Squad and Team Titanium...

So now it is time to prep and shoot.

And shoot some more. 

To say that the Bomb Squad was a shooting machine would be somewhat redundant, but seeing an elegant design in action is inspiring.  Team Titanium was no slouch, either.  But I think that the Bomb Squad sucked up more balls and made more shots.

This was not the final round score, but you get the idea how this Red Alliance did overall.

We walk into Hale Arena each year to watch the regional competition and cheer on the local teams.  I remember the first time as I looked around and said "I smell nerd."  It's like being at home except a lot louder and with more and better technology.

Claire wants to go to the local high school that has an engineering program and a mature FIRST team that has been to the world championships twice.  If she chooses to follow through and makes the team, we'll miss her during the long, sleepless build weeks.  But we'll know she is in good company.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  All photos are copyright Dwayne F. of vintagetechobsessions (just like what's in the exif).  Please ask before using, be polite about attribution and do not use for commercial purposes without explicit permission.  Of course the Blogger platform does not provide a means to lock down  my intellectual property, but you wouldn't want to find a fleet of quadrotors floating around in your bedroom, would you?


  1. This is SOOOOO cool. I have no robot-building skills AT ALL but so enjoy seeing this stuff. My BSU and I I used to love watching competitions like this on TV before the Discovery and Science channels turned them into media events. FYI: I tweeted both your and MEK's posts. p.s. Gingercat's buttons are the awesomest!

  2. Great photos! The only trouble with stills is that they can't truly capture the fury of the action because robots don't sweat.


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