What is a robotics competition?

It's not exactly Robo-wars. The robots don't battle each other to death, or at least, that is not the intention. But still, a F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition can be even more exciting than Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots or Robo-wars.

How do you play?
A first time spectator of a F.I.R.S.T event often will say something like, "What the heck is going on here?" There are people running around all over the place dressed in strange attire. Team spirit runs so deep you can't help but to soak it in. Groups of people dress in similar strange attire and gather in the stands yelling, screaming and chanting... at robots competing on a field.

Then, people tend to ask questions, such as, "What the heck are those robots doing?" A typical response might be, "Trying to score points." This usually doesn't satisfy their curiosity, rather it evokes even more questions, "How do you score points? How many points is that worth? Who is driving? What do you mean autonomous mode? How are teams made up?"

Each January the robotics teams are notified by the F.I.R.S.T. organization of the new season's game. The teams then have six weeks to build their robot. After that, the robots are put in crates and shipped to the various competitions. The only time the teams have access to their robots are at the competitions.

To get an idea of how the games are invented, It helps to know a few things about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). First of all, FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen. (Who is Dean?)

Each Janueary, Dean, other members of the FIRST organization, and participants from NASA invent a new game. Then, the teams go into "build season." The six week build season is extremely demanding of the youth. Many of these young adults put in 3, 5, or even 8 hours, after school. In addition, they still need to do their homework. Often, their work is not done until after midnight.

Building the robots is no child's play. The kids need access to a well outfitted machine shop. The robot is built from scratch. Safety is always a top concern. Drills, lathes, grinders, and such, are put to the test. Different sub-teams are formed to handle design, CAD, audio-visual, drive, and even team spirit building. Parents volunteer to help with things like providing meals so that the students can work right through dinner. The build season is intense.

In prior years, examples of feats the robots had to perform included maneuvering over a variety of ramps, shooting basketball sized balls through goals, and placing inner tubes on racks. The games are given unique names, such as, Ramp And Roll, Aim High, and Rack 'N' Roll. The 2008 game, Overdrive, is loosely based on NASCAR racing combined with giant ball hurdling.

Here are an example of game rules:
The Game // Miss Daisy VII [2008] // "FIRST Overdrive" *

The field for FIRST Overdrive consists of a circular 'track' created by dividing the field down the middle lengthwise with a tall metal separator. Across the middle of the narrow dimension of the field runs an overhead track where large balls called 'trackballs' sit at the beginning of each round.

Two alliances, red and blue, composed of three teams each, compete in a 2 minute and 15 second long match. The object of each match is to score more points than your opponent by making counter-clockwise laps and manipulating the ball in different ways while making laps.

A match is divided into two periods. The first, the 'hybrid period,' (also known as "autonomous mode") is 15 seconds long and is at the start of each match. During this period robots can be controlled by pre-programmed instructions and/or transmitted information via remote from a 'robocoach,' or human player. The second period, the 'teleoperated period,' is 2 minutes in length. During this period human drivers are in full control of their robots. (Note: the human drivers control the robot remotely. Standing behind a protective shield, the driver uses remote control joysticks.)

Alliance robots start catty-corner to each other on the field and must all be touching the wall of their respective end. Robots can only handle one trackball at a time and may not impede the flow of traffic on the track. Robots are also not allowed to aggressively go after their opponent's bots and are especially restricted from preventing a robot from hurdling if that robot has already started the process of doing so.

Scoring is broken down as follows:
Hybrid Period
Robot crosses a lane marker (there are 2 on each end of the field): 4 points
Robot crosses opponent finish line: 4 points
Robot crosses alliance finish line: 4 points
Trackball removed from overpass: 8 points
Trackball crosses alliance finish line under overpass: 2 points
Trackball hurdles alliance overpass: 8 points

Teleoperated Period
Robot crosses alliance finish line: 2 points
Trackball crosses alliance finish line under overpass: 2 points
Trackball hurdles alliance overpass: 8 points
Trackball is on overpass at end of match: 12 points


* Wissahickon's Team 341 / Miss Daisy Website (2008)

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