This week I made my computer geek happy. I went to the First Robotics Competition at the Duluth Events Convention Center to watch high school students compete with their robots. As someone who watched my vacuum robot with delight the first time I put it to work, I was excited to watch the robots in action.
The convention center was buzzing with excitement when I arrived. Teams from high schools all over Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Dakota were competing to qualify for the national competition. The atmosphere reminded me of the handful of times I attended team sports games with all the people cheering for their teams. A few of the schools had cheerleaders and custom cheers to shout when their teams were in the arena. And, of course, many of the students who were in charge of controlling the robots or providing support were dressed in costumes that fit their team names.
The arena was divided in half so that there were two competitions going at once. I picked a seat as close as I could get (the nosebleed section) and tried to figure out what I was happening. To someone who wasn’t directly involved, the rounds looked like pandemonium, with six robots hurrying around the field collecting cones and cubes to drop on their designated side for about three minutes. When the final buzzer sounded, the scores were tallied, and the winner announced.
I later found the robot pit stop where students made repairs and waited for their turn in the arena. The robots stand around two-three feet tall. They are designed and made by the students to complete the required tasks of the competition. I didn’t get many pictures because the area was pretty crowded and I could tell there were troubleshooting discussions happening. I marveled at the different designs and toured the area with a grin on my face, thinking that if something like that had existed when I was in high school, I totally would’ve been on the team. I’m guessing I might’ve ended up in a robotics career because of the fun.
I found out that the competition has three teams create an alliance to complete different tasks for points against another alliance of three teams. If I understood correctly, the alliances were made that day so the individual teams hadn’t worked together before.
The robots have to move on their own for fifteen seconds and complete a task during that time. After the robots move on their own, someone takes over driving the robot to complete different tasks to gain points. The tasks basically involve moving cubes or cones to different locations on the team’s designated site. The harder the item (such as putting a cone on a post that requires the bot to extend an arm) the more points the team will get.
I was impressed with how fast and how well many of the robots moved. The variation in speed and drivability was because of the wheel sizes and weight of the robot. My favorite robot strategy that I saw was a robot that could pick up items and toss them. It was a low profile robot that could also move fast. The driver would grab the objects and toss them in the direction of their teammates so that the other bots could complete the tasks. That team won by fifty points using that strategy.
The different rounds involved a new set of robots, which the organization had a system perfected to quickly get the next set of robots into the area to compete, so there was very little downtime.
There were, of course, robots that didn’t respond to computer instructions, overshot their targets, or didn’t let the human control them and sat where ever they had lost computer connection. There were also a few that tipped over at the beginning of the round and turned into an obstacle for the other robots to steer around. A few robots lost connection with the controller when they struck another robot. I’m sure this was devastating to the students who had spent so much time fine tuning the robot to make sure everything was as perfect as possible.
I enjoyed watching the event particularly because of the possibilities for what robots in the future can do. If you love robots and/or have a high school student who loves robots, this is an event you’ll enjoy watching and, maybe, participating in. You can find out more information at: https://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/frc/game-and-season.
I have a few short story ideas percolating in my head that came as a result of watching the competition. I plan to write them when I finish my romance novel.
Have a great week.