Thousands of teenagers descended on the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena the second weekend in March—not for a rock concert but for a regional robotics competition, one of 37 such events held Internationally. These competitions have been going on for 18 years now, but for the first time, all-girls teams made their presence felt.
The teens came bearing robots—constructed of aluminum, steel, plastic, and wood—weighing 40 to 55 kilograms, reaching as high as 5 meters and capable of draining a 12-volt, 18-ampere-hour motorcycle battery in under 3 minutes. The teens had less than six weeks to design and build robots to play a simple game: each team allies its robot with two other robots, then competes against another three-team alliance in placing inflated rings onto a rack on a carpeted playing field. Each new ring an alliance piles on the rack scores more points than the one that came before.
An alliance can score bonus points by lifting a teammate inside the home zone so that the robot is in the air when the 2 minute and 15 second game ends. A lift of 4 inches (10 centimeters) scores 15 points; a lift of 12 inches (30 cm) scores 30 points.
The Los Angeles regional competition began with eight seed rounds in which the robots were assigned to alliances at random. The eight teams that did the best—according to wins, losses, and number of points scored—then got to choose their alliances for the finals. First, they chose one robot each, with the top seed going first; then they each chose a third partner, with the eighth seed going first. The resulting eight alliances then played one another in three-game matches.
The action was fast-paced, with no time to bring robots into the pit for tune-ups between games. The stress of competition eliminated unreliable robots, and the area around the playing field was filled with stacks of discharged batteries.
Dean Kamen, famous for inventing the Segway scooter, founded the competition in 1989 under the acronym FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). His goal was to inspire young people to take a greater interest in and participate more in learning about science and technology. The initial competition took place 15 years ago with 28 teams competing in a high school gymnasium in Manchester, N.H.
The game changes every year, and FIRST supplies each team with the same kit of parts and a standard set of rules. The 2007 edition will be the largest ever, with more than 32 000 teenagers on 1300 teams from 7 countries—Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United States—competing in 37 regional events.
While all-boy and coed teams have been the norm since the beginning, in 2000 a group from the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles formed what is believed to be the first all-girl robotics team. They named their team after the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus, and dubbed their robot Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry.
Also in 2000, the St. Francis High School in Sacramento, Calif., decided that a girls’ school could field a team just as skilled and determined as the boys’ teams. They called themselves the Fembots, after the sultry android played by Elizabeth Hurley in the 1997 movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
The all-girl concept caught on. This year, California has 10 all-girl teams, out of 19 nationwide. At this year's Los Angeles regional, the Royal Robotrons, an all-girl team from Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, were in first place as they entered the final round. Their robot was a simple, elegant structure of wood and aluminum, designed to do just one thing: lift the two other alliance robots 30 centimeters (12 inches) in the air. This shrewd specialization meant that the Louisville team cared only about getting those 60 bonus points, leaving the job of placing the rings on the racks to its alliance partners, whoever they might be.
The biggest obstacle the girls had to overcome was their school's lack of a metal shop in which to construct a robot. In 2003, team founders Janet Chu and Nadia Shraibati enlisted Nadia's father, Tarek Shraibati, a professor in the manufacturing systems engineering and management department of California State University, Northridge. The girls worked on design concepts at school during the week and turned them into reality on the weekends at Northridge.
Nadia went on to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to study biomedical engineering, but her father, Tarek, stayed on to mentor the team. In January, IEEE member Mike Nicoll invited Tarek to speak about FIRST Robotics at the January 2007 IEEE Buena Ventura Computer Society Chapter meeting, to draw technical advisors and mentors to the team.
The Louisville girls began with the standard equipment that FIRST supplies to all the teams: a radio, a robot controller, motor controllers, motors, pneumatics, and power distribution components. They assembled a ”kit-bot” frame using parts from the kit and focused their design work on the ramps used to elevate alliance partners.
The resulting robot was simple and reliable, because it had to be. The team knew that it had only six weekends—that is, 12 days—of the six-week build time, whereas some of the competing teams would surely use the full 42 days.