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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Kids and Robots

March 25, 2016

The FIRST Robotics Challenge is an increasingly popular event that brings the thrill of competition to technologically-oriented high school kids, and the competition I attended in March of 2016 was filled with fast and furious action, lots of noise and cheering, plenty of challenges and a good time for all.

This year's challenge, called "FIRST Stronghold" is complex -- it's developing a robot to compete in a medieval-appearing contest that vaguely resembles a basketball game. Robots will have to overcome a variety of physical obstacles while gathering "boulders" (actually balls about the size and weight of a basketball) and shoot them at openings in a "castle." If enough boulders can be shot into the castle, the robot will be able to score more points by climbing the castle wall.

If that wasn't enough, when it comes down to the actual game, teams of robots are formed. While the robots will be controlled remotely during part of the game, in parts of the game they will have to operate autonomously, without human intervention.

And, oh yes, the students have about six weeks to design, build, debug and practice with their creations before heading into competition. Not surprisingly, the kids involved in the competition aren't exactly the normal kinds you would expect to find around a high school sports event. The best description I can think of is that they're made up of the kinds of kids you'd expect to build a robot for fun. At the meet I attended, there weren't a lot of kids running around that you'd expect would know what to do with a football in their hands. Though there isn't a huge percentage of girls involved, they are present and from what I could tell tended to be among the serious competitors.

It's more than just kids and robots -- each team showing up brought their own cheering sections with them. With "FIRST Stronghold" having a vaguely medieval theme, there were cheering sections that were dressed about like you'd expect for a renaissance faire, and that just added to the fun. All the teams are known by their numbers, rather than by a school or team name, so there were people cheering for "5688" or whatever. Some teams had large numbers, even lighted ones, to hold up to cheer their robot on.

How well do the robots work? That's not easy to explain. They worked better than I expected, and worse, not necessarily depending on the team. In general, I would have to say they moved more jerkily and less controlled than I expected. There are some general rules for the robots but there is a lot of room for creativity, and sometimes it backfires. One team I watched had a four-wheel robot with a heavy top section that supposedly gave very accurate boulder shooting. However, I never saw it get a chance because with the high center of gravity, every time it hit an obstacle it went over on its back and stayed there for the whole two and a half-minute match. It looked good on paper but not on the playing court.

While competition is furious on the playing field, it's less so back in the pits and back home where the robots are built. There's a tradition of helping each other out, and if a new team runs into problems they know they can ask an older team for help and advice. Several times during the matches a robot got hung up on an obstacle, and when that happened often a neighboring team from the same alliance run their robot into the team in trouble in an attempt to knock them free, and it always drew huge cheers from the well-packed arena. There were no points given for sportsmanship but it was highly appreciated.

It's clear that these things are not built out of string and duct tape, although there was some of both to be seen. They're expensive little critters, and there's a lot of corporate support. You can see both the money invested in these things and the team pride just by walking through the parking lot, where I noticed several enclosed trailers lettered for this or that team. The kids get a lot of adult support from their advisors, and some of them are very knowledgeable about what they're doing.

It's a tough challenge -- but there are a number of smart, technologically oriented kids who are taking it on. They're having a lot of fun out of this, and they are learning things that weren't taught in school even a few years ago.

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