What happens when you throw together a motor, sensors, shafts, bearings, and a multichannel radio control system containing a 12-V battery power supply with a team of high-school students? Fun, learning, and competition.
That's the premise and result of the worldwide FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. The 2004 FIRST Robotics Championship was recently held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, gathering together 292 teams from 26 regional competitions.
The competition would be challenging for a seasoned engineer, and it definitely takes high-school competitors to a higher level. This year, the robots must function and navigate independently of their controllers by using IR beacons during the first 15 seconds of the competition, also known as the Autonomous Period.
Under the team's remote control, the robots have the next 105 seconds to herd small balls to ball corrals, cap large balls on goals, move mobile goals, climb steps, or attempt to hang from the pull-up bar (Fig. 1). The goal is to have the robot trigger the ball release during the first 15 seconds, collect balls, and feed them to the human players, who will throw the balls into the goals—definitely not a trivial exercise.
The project must be a team effort. The job is simply too large for an individual, and the kinds of needed expertise vary. Software and engineering challenges are just part of the puzzle. Inspiration, design, and management skills are required to bring a project in under budget and fully operational.
This year's competition requires coordination between the robot and team members. The competition area is much larger than the original, measuring 24 by 48 ft compared to last year's 14- by 14-ft area, with two teams at each end.
Rookie and veteran teams tried to make each cut, with seemingly more excitement than the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournamen (Fig. 2).
The competition was a lot more fun than shows like the Electronica/Embedded Systems Conference, but Atlanta was home to more than just contests. The conference schedule was full of technical sessions, from C programming through motors, transmissions, and pneumatics. Some sessions even focused on fundraising and finance. Teams not only design and create a robot, they have to develop a business plan as well. If you're looking for well rounded engineers, check to see what science and engineering competitions they may have attended.
The FIRST competition was dreamed up in 1989 by a notable inventor and engineer, Dean Kamen, to inspire young people's interest in science and engineering. Kamen is well known for the Segway Human Transporter. Children ages 9 through 14 can enter the FIRST LEGO League, too.
Springtime isn't just for FIRST, though. Science Service and Intel host the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Portland, Ore., this month.