Hey, you guys. It's been a while. Over a year, actually, since I last wrote for the Times. I'm really sorry for that. It's just that . . . well, guys, I'm in love. His name is Stan. He's really good at basketball, 3 feet tall, and his pneumatic bucket works flawlessly.
You see, Stan is a robot. His sole purpose in life was to compete in this year's FRC game, Rebound Rumble. You're probably thinking, hold on a second, what the hootenanny is FRC? Well, that, my friends, is why I'm breaking my year long silence to talk to you today.
FRC stands for FIRST Robotics Competition (It's an acronym within an acronym. Acronymception). It is a program that issues a singular challenge to high-school level students across the world each January. The content of this challenge varies - this year, it was a modified version of basketball, the year before, it was hanging different shaped tubes on ten foot poles - but one thing remains the same; instead of the students performing the action, teams have just six weeks to build a robot capable of completing the given task.
It's an odd equation, to be sure. High school students aren't professional engineers by any means. They lack the years of experience that their older counterparts have. So let's put them in a metal shop, give em' a few power tools, ask them to design, fabricate, build, wire, program and troubleshoot a complex machine. And, just because that isn't enough of a challenge . . . Let's give them 42 days to do it all! Surely it would take a mad-man to come up with such an idea!
Actually, no. FRC was first dream of by a socially-awkward genius named Dean Kamen in 1989. You may recognize his name, but probably not. Most people don't know the names of the men that invented the Segue.
Legend has it that Kamen, who funded several science centers across the United States, walked around one of those centers asking kids to name famous scientists that lived in the past 100 years. Only one child was able to name one, yet all the children he asked were able to name at least five sports stars. It was then that Kamen decided that he needed to find a way to make science relevant to a younger generation. And, just like that, FIRST Robotics was born.
It started small, as these things usually do. Just 28 teams in a high school gym in New Hampshire. That year's game had students creating a robot that would be able to navigate a field covered with simulated sand made from ground up corn. That first year, the robots didn't even have to run wirelessly, instead relying on a physical "tether" and the requisite "tether untanglers" to receive information from the student drivers. No one was sure whether or not the program would succeed. Was there really such a demand for students competing with robots that weren't smashing each other to bits?
Turns out yes, there was. In 2012, twenty years after Maize Craze, there were 2,700 teams world wide, and FIRST had impacted the lives of nearly 54,000 high school students. Teams began sprouting up in the most unexpected places, like Israel and Brazil. It's incredible spread is due partially to a new focus on math and science, but more so to the spirited competition the game provides.
While the game changes from year to year, certain aspects stay the same. The qualification round being when teams are randomly sorted into three-robot "alliances." The first 10-15 seconds of each game is designated autonomous, which means the robot must function completely without human interaction (no drivers). The objective of the "auton" segment is the same as the main part of the game. The bulk of each match (2-3 minutes) is called "teleoperative control" or "tele-op". Two drivers are chosen from each team to control the robot's actions, as well as a human player that may be asked to do anything from putting balls back on the field to actually scoring points. Add one mentor and you have the "drive team." The drive team's goal is the same as in autonomous mode- namely, scoring more points than the other alliance.
The last 30 seconds of every match is still technically tele-op, but the goal is shifted. In what is referred to in the FIRST world as "endgame," another, completely unrelated challenge is put forth for the team to complete. Endgames are often worth significantly more points because they tend to be more challenging. For example, this year's endgame was to balance one, two, or three robots on a bridge, while last year's endgame involved building an entirely different robot capable of being deployed off the main robot and climbing a pole faster than anyone else's minibot. At the end of the game, the alliance with the most points wins. Wins and losses are tallied, and teams are ranked according to their record. When the qualification rounds end, the elimination rounds begin. The elimination rounds are played the exact same way, except that teams get to choose their alliances, and only eight alliances qualify (the top eight teams, plus their alliance picks). Teams must win two out of three games before advancing to the next level. The team left standing at the end takes home the gold.
Because FRC is about more than just winning, though, there are many awards that teams are eligible for. Each team is given a ten by ten space, called the "pit", where they can make repairs to their robot. Judges wander around the pit and interview students on topics ranging from their design to their business and sustainability plans. Their answers in these interviews determine certain awards. Other awards are given for web-site design, their ability to inspire other teams, and their Gracious Professionalism (a trademarked FIRST value in which teams, winning or losing, enjoy the competition and act professionally).
Being part of a robotics team isn't easy. Beyond the challenge of building a robot, which is a big challenge to get beyond, students are asked to put a tremendous amount of time and money into the team. Many teams divide into Engineering and Business teams, with a head student leading each section. The Engineering lead worries about the technical side of the team, and is busiest during the six week mad dash known as build season. The Business lead, however, works the rest of the year, approaching corporate sponsors, organizing fundraisers, and coordinating appearances for the team. I'm the Business lead on my team, and I routinely put in 10-15 hours of robotics work a week during the school year. During build season, 20 hours a week is a light work load. If the corporate sponsors don't cover a seasons costs, which can easily reach $20,000, team members and their parents are forced to cover the deficit. Petty fights often turn severely more frightening when a welding torch is involved.
Robots are cool, but if it's so much work, what's the point? Everything that needs to be said is right there in the name.
The letters in FIRST stand for For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, but any member of the FIRST organization will tell you a different story. They'll tell you that FIRST stands for excellence, commitment, and opportunity. They'll tell you that FIRST stands for over 14 MILLION dollars in scholarships awarded to participants each year. They'll tell you that FIRST stands for great real-life experience that will make you stand out in everything from college applications to job interviews. But, more than that, they'll tell you that FIRST Robotics is an intensely satisfying, thrill a minute sport that's the most fun they've ever had.
Well, I'm off to reconfigure my cRio and update my business plan.
Author's Note: For more information visit http://www.usfirst.org/aboutus/first-at-a-glance. If you still want to know more, pick up Neal Bascomb's book, "The New Cool." And, as always, if you have any questions about FIRST or my experience with it, shoot me a y-mail!