IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Kids rule in robotics

A referee makes a call during FIRST's "rack-and-roll" robot competition in Atlanta.

Thousands of students from around the world gathered over the weekend for two grand competitions for contraptions. And although there are winners to report, the biggest payoff from the FIRST robotics championship and NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race may well come in the form of future waves of exploration and innovation.

"We are trying to make a cultural shift in terms of celebrating intelligence," Maureen O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the FIRST program, told me from the championship rounds in Atlanta. "So right here, we are celebrating a Super Bowl of smarts."

That sentiment was echoed in Huntsville, Ala., by Frank Six, university affairs officer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. In a news release, Six noted that the teams competing in the Great Moonbuggy Race worked for months on the math, science and engineering required to field pedal-powered vehicles capable of handling moonlike terrain. 

"With the education and experience they've gained through this competition, they may be inspired to someday participate in other NASA ventures, such as returning to the moon, reaching Mars and exploring destinations beyond," Six said.

The goal of the two competitions may be similar - that is, inspiring future generations of gearheads - but the way they're set up is quite different.

FIRST - "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" - was founded as a charity in 1989 by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. His aim was to blend the geeky world of robotics with the kind of competition, sportsmanship and team spirit you see in varsity sports.

"To passively sit in a classroom is a 19th-century format," Kamen explained in a weekend news release. "In this next century, you're going to have to be creative, or you're not going to make it. We want to help stimulate our youth to be varsity thinkers and varsity creators."

More than 1,300 robotics teams from all over the United States and six other nations (Brazil, Britain, Canada, Israel, Mexico and the Netherlands) vied with each other to get to Atlanta. The task for the marquee event, the "Varsity Challenge," was to build a robot that could snag colored plastic tubes - the kind you see on tots in swimming pools - and hang them on 10-foot-high racks. The robots also had to use a vision system for navigation, and lift other robots at least 4 inches off the ground.

In addition to that "rack-and-roll" contest, FIRST staged a Lego-based "Nano Quest" robot competition for 9- to 14-year-olds, as well as a "Vex Challenge" for high-schoolers that used the Vex Robotics Design System.

O'Connell explained that the tasks were aimed at exercising the skills roboticists would need for real-world applications, such as designing better robotic arms and prosthetics.

"Teaching them how to build a robot that has vision capability will help them create those specs when they have to build something that needs night vision, or any sort of vision capability," she said.

The top rack-and-rollers were students and advisers in a three-team alliance involving South Windsor High School in Connecticut, the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science in Worcester, and Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas.

"We worked with each other, and our robots perfectly complemented each other," Chris Marra, a 16-year-old junior at South Windsor, told me today. The South Windsor bot focused on playing defense, while the other bots concentrated on hanging the plastic doughnuts and exercising their artificial-vision systems.

Marra, a veteran FIRST competitor who is already thinking about blending business with high-tech at college, said just being at the finals with more than 10,000 other robot-savvy students is an "absolutely amazing experience."

"It's just phenomenal, every time you’re there, to be in the field and look up into the stands and see 15,000 or 20,000 people watching what you’re doing."

The Rochester Institute of Technology's team rumbles to victory in NASA's Great

Moonbuggy Race, conducted at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The moonbuggy race at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville wasn't quite so much of a mass event, but the inspiration level was just as high.

The task facing 25 high-school teams and 22 college teams was to design and build a foldable bicycle-style vehicle that was powered by two human pedalers and included simulated antennas, batteries and other accoutrements of a lunar rover. The rovers were then put to the test in time trials on a course simulating lunar terrain - complete with craters, boulders and moonlike soil.

The contest pays tribute to the Apollo-era lunar rovers that were designed and tested by engineers at Marshall. The first moonbuggy race was run in 1994 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and although it was almost discontinued last year, Northrop Grumman's sponsorship has helped keep the buggies rolling. 

Among this weekend's winners were:

  • FIRST Varsity Challenge: The Chairman's Award went to the Miracle Workerz of MOE Robotics Group, Wilmington, Del. The winning alliance was Bobcat Robotics of South Windsor High School, Gompei and the H.E.R.D. of the Massachusetts Academy of Math & Science, and the Highrollers of Cimarron-Memorial High School.
  • FIRST Nano Quest: The Pigmice of Portland, Ore., won Champion's Award, 1st Place. Access 9 of South Bend, Ind., won Champion's Award, 2nd Place.
  • FIRST Vex Challenge: Occam's Engineers of Morristown, N.J., won the Inspire Award. The winning alliance was Occam's Engineers, Simbiotics of Toronto and E.M.P. of San Diego.

Check the FIRST Web site for other award and scholarship listings.

  • Great Moonbuggy Race, College Division: Rochester Institute of Technology (New York), first place with a time of 4:38. Best design: Pittsburg State University (Kansas). Most unique buggy: Murray State University (Kentucky). Pits Crew Award: Morningside College (Iowa).
  • Great Moonbuggy Race, High School Division: Huntsville Center for Technology (Alabama), first place with a time of 3:34. Best design: German Space Education Institute (Leipzig). Most unique buggy: Erie High School (Kansas). Pits Crew Award: Lima Senior High School (Ohio).

For other awards and participants, check NASA's reports on the high-school contest (with pictures) and the college contest (with pictures).