Saturday morning I attended the official kickoff of the 2008 FIRST Robotics Competition season. The big reveal of the 2008 game in Manchester, NH marks the beginning of 6.5 weeks of stress, sleep deprivation, and a lot of Mountain Dew for high school students all over the US and in countries like Israel, the UK, and Brazil.
FIRST is the brainchild of iBot and Segway inventor Dean Kamen, and started as a high school competition in a New Hampshire gymnasium. It has now grown to encompass not only tens of thousands of high school students but also middle school and elementary school students around the world through FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST LEGO League, and Junior FIRST LEGO League. Each division has a separate season, regional competitions, and championships.
The game this year is called Overdrive. Six teams (three teams on each of two alliances) are on the field at once with their roughly 34" x 34" x 72", 120 lb robots, and must complete laps around a small track while herding a 40" diameter, 10 lb inflated "Trackball" across a finish line. Points are scored for laps completed, times the Trackball crosses a team's finish line on the ground, times it crosses the line by being "hurdled" over a 6' high overpass, and for teams who manage to balance their Trackballs on the overpass before the two minutes of the round times out. Each year the game is different, and each year a new technical challenge comes up: this year, instead of the standard 15 seconds of completely autonomous operation and subsequent 120 seconds of teleoperation, the 15 second autonomous round may be replaced by a hybrid supervisory control mode, where the robots are largely autonomous but may be retasked by a human player using an infrared remote control on the side of the field. A short animation explaining the game can be found on the NASA robotics website.
Teams receive their kit of parts today, which they can augment further using a limited budget. In late February the robots will be shipped off to regional competitions around the country (as well as in Israel and Brazil) where they will meet in competition with other teams' creations. Winners of the regionals and of several important team awards will go on to the Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
FIRST is a great way to show high school students how cool robots can be, but it does a fantastic job of achieving its real mission: inspiring students to get excited about and pursue science and engineering. FIRST has academic and industry partners who offer a combined $9M in scholarships every year to the more than 35,000 students who participate in the program and a study from Brandeis University has shown how effective FIRST is in increasing graduation rates, increasing college attendance rates, and increasing the number of students pursuing science and engineering at schools that have formed teams. As the various politicians who attended Saturday's kickoff noted, programs like FIRST are critical to maintaining US competitiveness in the global market for science and innovation.
While it's too late to start a new team for the year -- team registration usually happens in September or October -- it's not too late to get involved as a mentor for these students or as a volunteer at one of the competitions. Find out what's going on in your area!