Last month the FIRST Robotics National Championship was held at the Georgia Dome, only several blocks from my house, so I ventured over to report on the events lasting from Wednesday to Saturday. The entire extravaganza was sponsored by Vex, Lego, and NASA, amoung others. The National Championship in Atlanta is the culmination of regional competitions throughout the US and Canada. Three separate events were simultaneously taking place under one roof. The FIRST Lego League (FLL) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) are both kit-based problem solving competitions for kids aged 9-14 and high school students. Additionally, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is an open-ended design competition which allows high school students the freedom to construct their robot from the materials of their choosing. The three competitions are entirely different; each has a unique playing field, set of objectives, and scoring method.
Team structure was similar for all three competitions with each team consisting of four to eight students and one or two adult mentors. As I would later find out, teams consist of many more members (as many as 100 students) who contribute to the design and construction yet do not necessarily attend competitions. Teams from as far away as Mexico, California and Ontario traveled to Atlanta to compete this weekend. The schedule was divided into practice, qualifying, elimination and championship rounds for all three competitions.
The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) game for 2008 is called “Overdrive” and is designed so that teams earn points during qualifying rounds and are ranked based on their performance. The teams then form “alliances” by organizing themselves into groups of three and use their robot team to defeat other alliances in the elimination and championship rounds. As The Beach Bots [Team 330] told me, a team’s ranking after the qualifying rounds won’t “make it or break it” but it does help convince good teams to join their alliance.
In each match, two alliances compete head-to-head on a specially-designed arena to score points with “Trackballs” which are over-sized (one meter diameter) kickballs. Each match has two scoring rounds and several scoring methods within each round. During the first round, called the “Hybrid Period”, the robots are fairly autonomous with on minor input from the “RoboCoach”, the team member responsible for transmitting basic digital signals to the robot. The robots score points for each quarter of the track they traverses as well as points for knocking off or lifting the trackballs over an overpass. Most teams’ strategy was to score points by simply moving around the track. Very few were capable of knocking the ball off and (from the matches I spectated) no robot was able to autonomously lift the ball over the overpass. This first round lasted only 15 seconds before the second round, called the “Teleoperated Period” began. Once this began, the remaining teammates stepped up to their control boards in their “alliance zones”. As Westside Boiler Invasion [Team 461] explained to me, most teams have two drivers during the teleoperated phase: one operating the drive portion of the robot and one operating the manipulator. During the teleoperated period, robots score points by making complete laps of the track (more points are awarded when in possession of their team’s ball), by lifting the ball up and over the overpass, or by ending the match with their ball placed back upon the overpass. This final goal required that a team have good time management as I witnessed Westside Boiler Invasion accomplish during the last six seconds of one of their practice rounds.
FIRST Robotics Competition Overdrive Description Animation
The students are responsible for the entire design and construction of their robot and control boards with very limited guidance from their mentors. The lifting and grabbing mechanism designs could be roughly grouped into three categories. Most teams chose a lifting arm with two or more joints. The Beach Bots’ robot was a well-built example of this design.
Several teams, like Skunkworks Robotics [Team 1983] chose a single degree-of-freedom sliding mechanism. The “Uber Stinktier” ingenuously utilized an extension ladder as the chassis for their manipulator. The remaining few teams employed a punting mechanism to “kick” the trackball over the overpass. GaCo [Team 1629] employed a catapult which, though working flawlessly, required precise alignment with the overpass. Special considerations were taken when interference from other robots caused poor positioning of their robot.
I was equally impressed by the layout and construction of the teams’ control boards. The saying “fit and finish sells” really applied to the students’ work on their control boards. I found that the students were really able to show off their packaging and construction skills. All the circuit boards and wiring were very clean and well laid out. Even the cases were smoothly cut and fit together in an almost commercial precision. Most teams controlled their robot through two flight simulator joysticks. However, GaCo controlled both the driving and catapulting through a single video game steering wheel, operated by only one team member.
As I learned from talking to the Robocats [Team 1885] each year’s robot must be built from scratch; no parts can be salvaged from previous robots. The teams are limited to an approximate budget of $3,000 with travel and team expenses being extra. I spent a few minutes between matches talking with Leslie, one of the volunteers. She informed me that the students manage all of their own budget, from soliciting donations from their community to pricing out necessary components for their robot. Each team is also responsible for the travel expenses to Atlanta, including shipping of their robot.
The shipping process is a challenge in itself. I talked to OCPro [Team 2550] who had some IR sensor damage during shipping from Oregon City but hoped to have their robot fully functional by the qualifying rounds. The team made it to Atlanta by winning the “Rookie Allstar” award in its region and I had confidence that they would overcome their initial troubles and that I would see them later in the weekend.
Providing an equal amount of entertainment at the Georgia Dome was the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), which is a competition aimed at high school students with a restricted budget. For most teams, the FTC is their first foray into robotic design and competition. Teams of up to ten students are required to construct their robots from Vex’s “robotics design system” which is a collection of metal plates and fasteners, motors, wheels, gears, and sensors. Each robot is controlled by two standard-issue RC airplane controllers.
Just like the FRC, the FTC game changes annually, with this year’s game being “Quad Quandary”. The playing field was laid out such that four robots battled in a two-on-two manner by grasping and placing rings onto various scoring poles during an autonomous and teleoperated period. Just as in the FRC, after qualifying rounds, teams formed three-team “alliances” in an attempt to win the championship. However, since the Quad Quandary playing field allows only two teams from each alliance to compete at a time, a match was restructured as a “best two out of three matches” where each team had to compete at least once.
FIRST Tech Challenge Quad Quandry Description Animation
From my impressions, unlike the FRC teams, FTC teams spent a lot of time between matches tweaking their robot or resetting it for the next match. Each team member had specific duties and it was not unusual to see several pairs of hands all working simultaneously in close proximity. For instance, I witnessed three members of Robodogs [Team 211] perform a rapid chain repair and battery swap on the sideline immediately after a qualifying match.
I was equally impressed with the level of sophistication in the FTC robots. It was evident that most teams possessed the prescience to design their robot with adequate protection around the drive train to prevent damage from other bots. I was also impressed at the robustness of the robots; most were capable of picking up rings without having to be precisely positioned. This allowed for some very efficient robots which could traverse the entire playing field, without regard to other robots, and collect a dozen rings in a matter of seconds.
I spent much of Friday spectating a local team from Stone Mountain, Georgia known simply as S.H.I.R.T. [Team 600]. After their practice rounds, they chose to form an alliance with Hammered Steel [Team 589] and Psychotic Strawberryz [Team 2]. Together they dominated their opponents with ruthless efficiency. Many teams had well designed robots but I would attribute much of this alliance’s success to the inter-team communication. I could see them strategizing on the sideline between matches and working together to score points during matches. Shirts’ robot operated by bulldozing around the playing field and collecting rings into one continuous stack. When the stack was large enough, the robot would navigate to a goal post, lift the entire stack up and deposit it in one single motion. They became so efficient that during a quarterfinal match, they spent the last 15 seconds defending their collection of rings on the 24 in. paired-goal post which they had dragged into their quadrant.
I was also impressed by a tactic employed by several other teams. Instead of moving around to collect rings, navigate to a goal post, and deposit them; they chose to grab hold of a goal post and “lock” it into their robot. This prevented other robots from moving the goal or adding rings to it. The team was then unhindered and could drag the goal post around, and as they picked up a single ring, deposit it automatically.
The third and final event of the weekend was the FIRST Lego League (FLL). The event was held on Thursday and Friday and I unfortunately had very little time to spectate the youngest group of future roboticists. The FLL allows kids aged nine to fourteen the chance to develop their critical thinking skills by designing an autonomous robot built entirely from Lego’s Mindstorm kit. The robots compete in a game which changes annually, this year’s being Power Puzzle. Personally, I found this game to be the most complicated of the FIRST events of the weekend. While each robot is competing on its own playing field, the number of scoring chances seems quite overwhelming. The FIRST Lego League is unique amongst other FIRST competitions in that it is the only competition boasting any international teams.
FIRST Lego League Power Puzzle Description Video
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the entire weekend: both by the actions of the teams and the organizers. All the competitions were easily accessible to spectators; on Friday during the FTC championships and the FRC qualifying rounds, the stands were packed with parents, teammates, press, and fans. The teams had an amazing level of team spirit and pride. Each team had special jerseys ranging from screen printed T-shirts to matching costumes depicting their team mascots. I saw teams of wizards, aliens, and pink construction workers.
The FIRST Robotics Competition held its championship round on Saturday with Simbotics [Team 1114], Thunder Chickens [Team 217], and Robowranglers [Team 148] defeating the alliance of Norwell Robotics [Team 348], H.O.T. [Team 67], and Baxter Bomb Squad [Team 16]. The FIRST Tech Challenge finals were on Friday evening when Mr. T [Team 30], Team Overdrive [Team 74], and Beach Cities Robotics [Team 23] were victorious in the final match.
The FIRST National Championship is held every year in Atlanta. Information on the 2009 schedule can be found on FIRST’s website.