FIRST Roundup

I don’t know about you, but when the robots take over the world, I certainly want to be on the winning team. Well, actually, or at least statistically, I do know about you, because we live in a democracy, damnit!, and your government believe that promoting the United States as a world leader in science and technology is a worthy effort.

Aside: Realistically, NASA, being a beurocracy, does not represent the majority of the population, so my statistics claim is a false one, but I like the rhetorical effect of a robotic apocalypse.

Farther Aside: (a) We live in a republic, not a democracy, damnit! (b) Our elected president from January 2001 to January 2005 did not represent a majority of the population, so this whole “taking over the world” analogy is faulty. I only include it because of its ridiculousness. The comic effect of the first sentence pushed me into a really bad analogy, because the sci/tech rallying effort I am describing is not even a government program, but recieves sponsorship from NASA.

After much ado, but without further of the same: the program is the FIRST robotics competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)

FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, the Segway guy, a dozen or so years ago, with the aim of getting high school students interested in robotics. They host an annual robotics competition, playing a different game each year. This year’s game was Triple Play, which I won’t get too much into. Basically, robots move tetrahedral wireframe pyramids (“tetras”) onto larger tetrahedral goals, playing an overly complex game of team tic tac toe. There’s an autonomous mode (that is, the robots run without human control,) and a bunch of other stuff better explained by a video (S, M, L.)

This was our rookie year at the competition, which made our three days particularly eventful, but first…

Backstory: It all started a couple months ago. “Meet Skippy the Robot!” read the posters about the school. Well, those cartoon bots just hooked me, and so I ventured to the first meeting of the Oceanside High School Robotics Club. Skippy turned out to be a robot we borrowed from another school, though the one we built mysteriously took on the same name without question or even thought.

A few uneventful weeks went by; then we got our test robot kit, which was basically just a crude RC car, which was still pretty uneventful, though certainly more fun; and then we started building the game robot. My life continued mostly as before (I did stay late a couple times, and even came on a Sunday once,) but this was not the case for all. Some (read Devin and Matt) stayed to eleven o’clock (that is, 23:00) every night for a month turning a pile of aluminum into a (somewhat) functional machine.

Frontstory: The bot was built and shipped on schedule; yadda yadda yadda. There was even a terribly inaccurate article in the Herald about our teamwork. Now for the real excitement: the competition—forty teams ready for three action-packed days in the Hofstra arena.

Thursday: It worked before shipping on a hard rubbery gym floor. Our practice day brought trouble, though, since we learned that the carpeted arena floor provides too much traction for turning. Problem: too much traction. Solution: duct tape on the wheels. (Works like a charm.) Problem: Duct tape on the wheels is illegal. Solution: Paul: drive to the hardware store and buy water-based polyurethane to coat the wheels with before asking whether it is legal. Problem: It, too, is illegal, for reasons I cannot explain. Solution: Take the advice of those with experience and wrap zip ties across the tires. Meanwhile: Signal to six-hundred dollar computer dies; replacement borrowed on collateral of the infinitely generous Ed Wilenky’s credit card. He probably would have born the cost if needed, but thankfully we had no more computer troubles.

Later on Thursday: We did not expect to pass inspection. Not surprisingly, we did not pass inspection. Our four bathroom scales told us that our robot was under the 120-pound limit, but the more accurate competition balance said otherwise. We missed our afternoon matches fanatically drilling and unsafely sawzalling.

Silver lining: Sticking to the principle of KISS (Keap It Simple, Stupid,) we were able to have a very effective autonomous mode of operation: turn and swing the arm. We had no fancy vision systems and we did not try to go for more than the one easiest point to score in autonomous mode.

More Failure: After rotating the robot around the balance, we found a 120.0 sweet spot, allowing the inspector to pass us on weight and point out our other flaws. At the end of the practice day, we learned that our wires were of non-standard colors and must be completely redone. Also, the pneumatic portion of our arm had to be equipped with a safety valve that effectively crippled half of the arm, not to mention adding extra weight.

Friday: The first day of real competition started bright and early, with the bringing of Skippy up to standards. We missed the first two matches, but we completed the important milestone of eventually passing inspection.

Not So Easy From There (Friday/Saturday; I cannot recall which.) The robot was ready for competition, except things kept breaking. First one half of the arm stopped moving. Then the other half suffered the same fate. Through all the trouble, we did manage to score a few points. Even Matt, our most pessimistic leader, was happy with our final round.

The Letdown: Just kidding. We did not expect to advance, and indeed we did not. As a rookie team, we were happy to compete.

The second half of Saturday was spent watching the top twenty-four teams, which we were not part of. It was quite exciting, though my favorite, Tetanator, did not reach the finals.

The Drama: I am no judge of drama, so I will provide a few quotations and let you, the reader, decide whether it was worthy of reality television. These are paraphrased.

The guys are otherwise a good bunch, but the stress was high, and by my assessment there was a wee bit of tension at some points.

What I Learned: The deadline was too pressing to learn any serious engineering lessons, but I guess I learned the value of management, which we had absolutely none of. I reserve the right to make Dilbert-esque jokes at any future dead-end manager-hating jobs I may have, but seeing some of the giant, happy teams at the event gave me an appreciation for organization.

Gracious Professionalism is the FIRST philosophy, and every team there lived up to it. Our competition was too eager to help us and each other. If you are at all interested, study engineering and you will be happy working every day with people like these.

Weeks of toil (mostly other people’s) and a hell of a lot of pissing each other off came to an anti-climactic finish last Saturday at noon. Would I go through with this again? Absolutely. I wish team 1554, Oceanside High School, the best of luck in its second year. And I wish the United States—nay, the whole world—the best of luck in fighting off the conquerer robots.

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This was written on Monday, March 21, 2005 by Lenny.


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