In the pits with FIRST Robotics

-April 04, 2014

If you believe that high-school students shy away from engineering, then attending a FIRST Robotics competition will change your mind. On March 29, I attended a competition at Northeastern University. Some 40 robotics teams from around New England spent two days at Matthews Arena competing, learning, adjusting their machines, and making friends.

My motivation for attending this competition was to see my nephew's team, known as ALARM 2079. But, I had an added bonus, Team 2171 (The Beantown Boltz) with Daniel Sheen of Vintage test equipment: Not just for old engineers.

The competition lasted two days, starting Friday, March 28. High-school teachers gladly let their students miss a day of school for the competition.

Students had six weeks to build their robots based on specifications that change each year. This year students built robots that could hold a ball, pass it to another team's robot, and shoot the ball into a goal. Every robot is unique, as you'll see in the video below and on Page 2.

Here's how it works. The 40 teams were assigned colors—blue or red—at the competition. Because the teams didn't know which color ahead of time, they made bumpers in both colors and attached them to their robots on competition day. Three teams of each color were randomly grouped into "alliances" for the games. An alliance is composed of three teams randomly assigned until the championship matches. Each alliance must collaborate to win their match. As matches are assigned, red or blue color is assigned to each team. A team's color may change until the championship matches. 

Each game consisted of one alliance from each color. Each alliance had its own ball and could score points by shooting the ball into a goal located at each end, worth 10 points, more if each alliance passed the ball to another team of its color before scoring. Robots could also roll the balls into goals on the playing surface for one point, again with an additional 10 points for each pass or "assist." (Think hockey.) A truss bar located over the center of the playing area provided another means for scoring. Any alliance who could shoot the ball over the truss gained another 10 points. Games ran for two minutes. The video below shows one game.

After the qualifying matches, the eight teams with the highest scores went to the playoffs. Here, each team formed an alliance with two other teams with the team having the highest score being the first to invite another team to form an alliance, which could be from one of the other top teams. When asked, most teams accepted but one of the other top eight declined an invitation from a higher-scoring team and formed its own alliance. If teams from the top eight were in the same alliance, then the ninth highest-scoring team could join, and so on. One the alliances were formed, they would play rounds consisting of a two-of-three matches until a winner was crowned. Following the competition, teams were given awards in several categories.

In the pits behind the playing area, teams armed with tools and parts made adjustments and replaced parts, sometimes after every game. All robots were subject to inspection after each game. A robot might be disqualified if, for example, its bumpers were no longer at the correct height. Here's an example of a well-organized pit, though most teams kept their tools in toolboxes.

Page 2 shows several robot designs. On page 3, you'll see close-ups of some robots. Page 4 brings you an in-depth video tour of the robot from team 2079.

Get involved with a FIRST Robotics team in your area.

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