Robot Soccer

You probably already know that the FIRST (but not the first) Robotics Competition was held in Atlanta this past weekend. According to their web site, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The Manchester, NH not-for-profit designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.” Those sound like noble goals indeed.

This year’s event included several LEGO League competitions (kindergarten to age 16), and, for older teens, the Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition (ages 14-18). NASA streamed the competition over the internet, and I was sucked into the Breakaway Robotics Competition for about an hour Saturday morning. Only my strong personal commitment to yard work and marital happiness were able to draw me away.

The game I watched, Breakaway, is a form of soccer played by wheeled robots. The field of play is a rectangle divided into three zones by transverse bumps, with goal openings at each corner. A game begins with six robots and 12 soccer balls positioned on the field. For the first 15 seconds the robots operate autonomously, trying to propel soccer balls into the opposing goal by using cameras to detect the goals, each of which features a large, visible target, and the balls, which are standard, size 5 soccer balls. After 15 seconds, the human team members step forward to take over manual control of the robots to implement advanced strategies (usually, anyway) using standardized control stations at each end of the field. The manual phase lasts two minutes.

The games are scored more-or-less like soccer, with a couple of robotic-friendly extensions. A point is accrued by propelling a soccer ball into a goal. In addition, to allow the robots to show off, two extra points are granted for each robot which is NOT touching the field of play when time expires. The field design includes two towers which may be used to lift the robots, either by driving them onto the raised tower platform, or by robots grabbing the superstructure to lift themselves off of the field. An extra point is awarded for a robot manages to get itself supported by another robot. (Would that be a “sugar robot?”) Penalty cards are given for rule violations, which may result in the deduction of points. Robots who yell at the officials are subject to being powered off. (OK, I made that rule up.)

Each team designs and builds its own robot based on a kit of parts and a collection of techical specifications provided by FIRST. Many teams even build their own version of the field of play, to test their designs and practice strategy. For each Breakaway game, the competition is between two Alliances, each consisting of three Teams.

The matches I saw were competitive, and the teams and spectators were enthusiastic. While all of the robots were based on the same mechanical, electrical, and pneumatic parts, the operational designs varied, and the cosmetic treatments varied even more. Some designs were clearly superior to others, showing that engineering was a key factor.

Frankly, I was impressed by the level of technical sophistication, and perhaps even more by the level of enthusiastic participation. Anything that can manage to unite 20,000 students, mentors, volunteers, sponsors and fans in an endeavor that “inspires young people’s interest and participation in science and technology” seems well worth the effort. I’m already looking forward to next year’s FIRST competition!

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