FIRST Robot Finals Rock Agganis Arena

I have to admit the sight of legendary MIT engineering prof Woodie Flowers being lowered from the Agganis Arena ceiling over a sea of robots and screaming fans as the Mission Impossible theme song blared was pretty cool.

That was just part of the gala kickoff of today’s Boston regional finals of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition—Flowers was the emcee—held before a packed house at Boston University’s swank gym. It was a wild and wooly event that drew 51 high school robot-building teams from around New England. Before Flowers descended on us, we were treated to a special performance by the Blue Man Group and a welcome from Boston mayor Tom Menino (The Blue Men were a tad more exciting, but the mayor kept it short.)

I went over this morning, joining a crowd of folks who included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (a judge), and Xconomists Marc Hodosh (chair of Boston FIRST), John Abele (chair of FIRST and Boston Scientific co-founder and chairman), George Church, Ken Zolot, and Anne Swift. It was fun going down into the pits, where the teams were tuning up, making repairs, and hammering out strategy during the preliminary rounds that thinned out the ranks to some 24 teams for the afternoon finals.

You can read all about FIRST, which was dreamed up by inventor Dean Kamen, and the robot competition here. The basics are that teams all start with the same core motors and electronics. They can then spend up to $3000 to build their robot, which must compete against—and with—other teams.

This year’s game was called Overdrive, which took place on a small, carpeted oval track. Two alliances of three teams each played at the same time. The goal was to knock giant balls off a rack, then to race around the circuit. Alliances scored points for each lap they completed, as well as for moving balls across the finish line or over the rack.

It’s all done to blaring music and lots of cheering. Abele explained at a private luncheon that the fact the teams compete in different alliances over multiple rounds gives them incentives to mentor and work with other teams even as they compete: “coopetition.” Kamen, also an Xconomist, blogged about the motivation behind the event in You Get What You Celebrate.

I had to leave before the event finished—but I will be sure to update you on the winners, who will go on to the finals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta from April 17-19.

But it really doesn’t matter who wins. The real point, of course, is to build excitement about science, engineering, and technology, as well as to teach cooperation and “gracious professionalism,” which was a theme of the event. Partly to that end, the judges were busy handing out a slew of awards, not for scoring points but for things like respect and collaboration, mentorship, design elegance, engineering features, spirit, and more. As Woz told me at the buffet line, “We have a lot of awards. Only one is for winning.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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